Facing devastating losses, small farmers pivot to sell directly to consumers

Emily Heil

THE WASHINGTON POST – For many farmers, March is the calm before the storm of spring. But this year, in addition to ordering seeds and planning crops, small farmers around the country are finding themselves with very different tasks as the coronavirus outbreak upends their worlds: They’re remaking business plans, marketing new offerings and rewriting their sanitation rules.

“I’m spending a lot more time behind a computer than I ever have,” said Shannon Varley, who co-owns Strafford Village Farm in Vermont with her husband, where they grow vegetables and flowers and produce beef and lamb on 178 acres. “I’d usually be out in the fields.”

Small farms are rushing to adapt, with many pivoting from supplying restaurants, specialty shops and schools – many are closed now – to selling directly to customers. They are shifting to new ways of interacting, including no-touch deliveries and drive-through pickups. Some are simply waiting it out, hoping the crops they’re planting will be harvested in a world that’s gone back to normal.

Like many small businesses, farms could feel devastating effects of the pandemic. According to a report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small farms, farms and ranches that sell locally could see a decline in sales of as much as USD688.7 million. And the aid they will receive from the just-passed stimulus bill is unclear: The law includes USD9.5 billion for farmers, but it’s up to the Department of Agriculture to distribute it among livestock producers, specialty crop producers and those who sell at farmers markets.

Still, some farmers are finding a silver lining, as customers face empty shelves in their grocery stores and start asking questions that the local-food movement has long posed: Where does my food come from? How many people have touched this apple, this lettuce? And what happens if the intricate supply chain that gets the produce from far-flung countries to my refrigerator is suddenly upended?

Moon Valley Farm owner Emma Jagoz checks the soil at the property in Woodsboro, Maryland. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Produce boxes packed and ready for delivery at Moon Valley Farm
Justin Bridle and Joe Brillon pack CSA boxes at Moon Valley Farm
For many farmers, March is the calm before the storm of spring. But this year, in addition to ordering seeds and planning crops, small farmers around the country are finding themselves with very different tasks as the coronavirus outbreak upends their worlds: They’re remaking business plans, marketing new offerings and rewriting their sanitation rules

For Beckie and Jack Gurley, the coronavirus era has meant upheaval – and opportunity. The couple own Calvert’s Gift Farm in rural Maryland, and she operates Chesapeake Farm to Table, a collective of small farms that sell their wares from a single portal. Until the virus closed restaurants, most of its customers were chefs from Baltimore and the surrounding region seeking local produce, eggs, beef, beans, honey and cheeses to grace their menus.

In early March, those orders dried up as public officials ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms. Some moved to takeout and delivery only, yet the farm-to-table business evaporated almost overnight. But then a surprising thing happened: Chefs were quickly replaced by individual customers, families who wanted food they knew the source of – or just food at all, as people snapped up the goods from grocery stores and big boxes. “Out of the blue, all these people have found us, and it’s been fabulous,” Beckie said.

She’s not entirely sure how the turnabout came. Social media isn’t her forte, she chuckles. But accommodating the new customers took some hustle. Restaurant customers were fewer and placed larger orders than the smaller but more numerous families she’s now catering to. So she had to increase her staff. She added a second truck from her own farm and borrowed a neighbour’s to make deliveries. She added a delivery fee to make up for some of the increased cost.

Elsewhere in Maryland, Emma Jagoz was pulling off a similar shift at Moon Valley Farm, which she operates with her husband.

Their organic vegetables and herbs could typically be found on plates of Baltimore and Washington’s finest restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen, Tail Up Goat, the Dabney and Maydan. But these days they’re more likely to turn up on suburban kitchen tables.

Jagoz watched news about the virus’s spread early this month in alarm. She’d been hearing from chef clients about stagnating business and empty dining rooms, and she knew it was a matter of time before a sizable chunk of her business vanished. So she emailed the members of the community-supported agriculture (CSA) programme the farm operates, which typically doesn’t start up until May, announcing the farm was offering home delivery of boxes filled with sweet potatoes, kale, mushrooms, microgreens, radishes and carrots. She enlisted her sister, a woodblock artist, to make a graphic announcing the offering that she posted on Instagram:

“We know that grocery stores are overwhelmed and that some people are feeling more comfortable at home for a while. We believe in our local food system and we know that our bodies can be more resilient when we eat healthy, nutrient-dense veggies, which is why we want to be there for you and bring veggies to your door! We are offering a la carte CSA shares delivered to your home (in the Baltimore & DC areas, not all zip codes applicable) on Tuesdays and Fridays before the start of the CSA season in May. No need to be a current CSA member to participate. Shares will include items from us and our partner farms (@sassafras_creek_farm @kingmushroom15) such as sweet potatoes, kale, mushrooms, microgreens, radishes & carrots. We have some add-ons available as well, including honey, local & organic grains, gourmet mushrooms. To place an order and to see a copy of our order sheet, email [email protected] (yes that’s my mom!!)! We wish you all a genuine laugh & a healthy meal.”

Her mother, who recently moved in with her family after her father sustained a brain injury, has been staffing the phones and coordinating the deliveries, hundreds of them a week.

“I feel grateful to still have a business that can function at this time,” Jagoz said. “I’m grateful to have the support of the community and to have the infrastructure to make a pivot that works right away.”

Other farmers, though, aren’t poised to adapt so easily. Clay Oliver, whose farm in Pitts, Georgia, produces artisanal cold-pressed oils from pecans, sunflowers and pumpkins, has seen his business plummet. About a third of his revenue comes from restaurants – high-end chefs all over the South have swooned over his award-winning oil pressed from delicate fresh green peanuts – but they’re all closed. Small retail shops, many catering to tourists who are now staying home, make up about another third. He’s left with internet sales, which he said fluctuate.

He cut production last week and gave his few employees the week off. “My strategy is just to hold on as long as we can,” said Oliver, who operates from the family farm he and his brother inherited. “Fortunately, we are pretty small and we don’t have a ton of debt. I don’t have to get a note paid.” Still, he worries.

He cancelled a delivery when he realized it was to Albany, Georgia, a town that has turned into a hotspot for the virus. Three customers were schools that are now shuttered. He hasn’t yet had a problem getting supplies, but he fears there could be hiccups. Still, he feels more ready than most. “Coming from a farm and growing up like we did, you’d hear people say, ‘Hard times are coming again,’ ” he said. “You try to prepare for that.”

And hard times might be coming. The potential USD688.7 million decline in lost sales that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition warned about comes from the closure of restaurants, schools and other sales outlets – but mostly from the closure or shrinkage of farmers markets around the country, which could account for USD600 million in lost revenue, according to the report.

Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, said there is ambiguity in some parts of the country about whether farmers markets are “essential” businesses that can remain open as stay-at-home orders take effect. A dozen states, including Maryland, have issued clarification that they are, he notes, but elsewhere, cities are shutting them down. “The inconsistency we’re seeing is creating a real problem,” said Feldman, whose organisation is seeking clarity from federal officials.

Even where markets remain open, they might be less lucrative. Some markets may have space for fewer vendors, he notes, as they implement social distancing rules. And farmers and markets alike need more staff to control the flow of customers, which comes with increased costs.

Accommodating social distancing has been a shift for farmers who might be used to letting customers rifle through bins of tomatoes or offering hugs and handshakes to regulars. In Vermont, Varley initially reacted by limiting the number of customers in the farm store to one family at a time. Then she morphed the operation into an order-ahead, drive-through service, setting up tables along the driveway where people pull up and she and her husband load packages into their back seats.

“It felt tricky to me because I love being with the community as much as I can,” said Varley, fresh off a Zoom conference with her bookkeeper to figure out how to sync up the new ordering and payment system. “But it became clear that the priority had to be minimizing touching and human interaction.”

Another challenge for farmers has to do with planting. Farmers who have specialised in ingredients for chefs are thinking about what home cooks might want instead.

Jagoz said her customers are just as adventurous in the kitchen as the pros.