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

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,” says Shannon Varley, who co-owns Strafford Village Farm in Vermont with her husband, where they grow vegetables and flowers and produce beef, lamb and pork 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 $688.7 million. And the aid they will receive from the just-passed stimulus bill is unclear: The law includes $9.5 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?

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 says.

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 neighbor’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 last 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 chunk of her business vanished. So she emailed the members of the CSA program 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.

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 says. “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 staying home, make up about another third. He’s left with internet sales, which he says 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,” says 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 canceled 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 says. “You try to prepare for that.”

And hard times might be coming. The potential $688.7 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 $600 million in lost revenue, according to the report.

Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, says 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,” says Feldman, whose organization 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 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,” says 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 specialized in ingredients for chefs are thinking about what home cooks might want instead.

Jagoz says her customers are just as adventurous in the kitchen as the pros. But the Gurleys are eyeing a large patch of peppers they planted specially for a chef who planned to use them in a hot sauce. Maybe home cooks will want them, Beckie figures. It might be too late for the fava beans that are already in the ground – Gurley says they’re more popular with chefs than home cooks. “We’ll be putting in more sugar snaps and shelling peas for them,” she says.

Despite the turmoil and the potential peril, many small farmers say the coronavirus pandemic has brought an unlikely gift, as consumers think more about where their food is coming from and what might happen if the produce and meats they are so used to finding, in abundance, on the shelves of grocery stores suddenly weren’t there.

Dena Leibman, director of Future Harvest, a group that supports farmers in the Chesapeake region, says she’s been overwhelmed by the interest in local food – and not just from the typical CSA crowd. “Now it’s not just a certain type of person who is seeking out and getting local produce,” she says.

Her organization worked with the Maryland Farmers Market Association to develop a “Find a Farmer” map of farms, markets, butcher shops and wineries to help people source their food locally. Since it went live March 21, the groups say, it has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

“We have the opportunity to share the message that knowing your farmer and knowing your food is better,” says Jagoz, who has adopted the mantra on social media and with fellow farmers that “local is the new normal.” “And that’s not just in the face of this virus, but in the face of climate change or economic uncertainty.”

For now, farmers are like everyone else muddling through the economic terrain, though they may be more used to uncertainty than many other business owners, with early frosts, failed crops and damaging storms to prepare them.

Meredith Molli, a chef and farmer who owns the Goose and Gander Farm in Carnation, Washington, is waiting to see what happens next. Her own restaurant in Seattle is closed, and her CSA doesn’t start until the summer. All she can do, for now, is plant.

“I’m having a lot of anxiety, like everyone else,” she says. “I’m just focused on growing as much food as I can. That makes me feel as positive as I can.”

In Georgia, Oliver just filed an application for a loan under the Small Business Administration’s new disaster relief program. He’s heard some of the loans might be forgiven. But his thoughts about the future are mostly in the land. He’s preparing to plant this year’s sunflower crop, which will be harvested this summer. Based on demand from last year, he had been planning to expand. What about now? He figures he’ll go ahead and plant more anyway, he says: “We can’t worry about this thing preventing everything.”