In spring 2020, just as they were hitting their stride at the start of the season, many farmers were suddenly faced with a market picture drastically changed by the arrival of COVID-19, and the subsequent shutdown of farmers markets and shuttering of restaurants. Many not only had to “build a new plane as they flew it,” they did so while flying into a hurricane with no radar. Three farmers at three very different scales talked about their challenges, successes, and lessons learned as they made their lightning-fast pivots to adapt to the pandemic. They spoke at the New York winter conference.
A small farm moves online over one weekend
Before the pandemic, 90% of sales from the 1.5-acre Lovin’ Mama Farm in Amsterdam, New York, were through farmers markets. “On March 13th, we found that all of our markets were cancelled,” said co-owner Corinne Hansch. But with hoop houses full of over-wintered greens, they had produce that couldn’t wait.
They developed new outlets selling through pop-up markets, and consignment sales at a local grocery market and food co-op. But the majority of their sales went online.
“We opened an online store the same weekend,” Corinne said, taking advantage of a bare-bones offering from GoDaddy, their web host. “Within three days, we had started making our first sales,” although not without stress. “We always messed up at least one order a week. If I had to do it again, I would upgrade to a more complete online store,” one that generated pick lists to reduce the errors of hand-transcribing each order. Nonetheless, 60% of the farm’s 2020 sales were from online orders, including some CSA payments. “This brought us through the pandemic.” (It also landed them on the cover of the May 2020 issue of Acres, “Standing Strong”.)
“If I had to do it again, I would upgrade to a more complete online store”
Early on, they offered free delivery, “but we found that was not sustainable for our small business.” They switched to requesting that customers only ask for delivery if they were homebound. Costs for packaging and extra labor for doing the packing also had an impact. “We still prefer market sales, where we put the produce right into the bag in front of the customer.”
Pivoting from market-style to home delivery, with a second truck
Fox Creek Farm in Schoharie, New York, grows 12 acres of vegetables and, in normal years, serves 400 CSA customers market-style at 11 sites. “When the pandemic hit, we thought for a brief moment about taking a sabbatical,” said farmer Raymond Luhrman, “but we had already sold half our CSA shares.”
“Instead we asked, How can we reduce exposure and maintain social distancing? We bid adieu to our market-style set-up, and instead went to pre-packed shares. But we were not set up for a pre-pack system.”
Raymond and partner Sarah also determined that home delivery was likely to be an important add-on, since so many people had reduced traveling to a minimum. “I had no clue about how this was going to work, though, in terms of logistics, capacity, reception on the part of customers, and price point. I lost a lot of sleep over this.”
Setting a fair price for delivery when you’ve never done it is a major concern. “We ballparked for extra labor, depreciation, fuel, et cetera, to determine how much deliveries were costing us.” The farm also needed a second truck, which itself was a challenge in those early days.
“Home deliveries were successful,” he said, “and we survived physically and mentally. We ended up estimating the cost of delivery pretty closely.” But, he added, “we way underestimated the time commitment for administration” for this new system. “And keep your trucks in good repair!”
From restaurants to CSA deliveries, with software and a new work crew
“When COVID hit, our markets all shut, our restaurant orders all got cancelled, and our crew in the city”—New York City—“all quit,” said Zaid Kurdieh, owner of the 200-acre Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, New York. “I had to drop everything and start driving trucks.”
In 2019, the farm was selling mainly to wholesale and restaurant customers in the city, so they needed a rapid change in their business. Because of their large volume and multiple customers, they had already developed a software system to track orders and schedule deliveries. “We had the infrastructure to sell.” So they pivoted to taking orders for home delivery in the city.
“The first week we opened up for home delivery, and by week two we were filling 80 orders a day.” They quickly realized that custom orders were taking too much time—“the bottleneck was packing, and we weren’t in the business of packing boxes”—so they switched to pre-set boxed orders. At the peak, they were filling 1500 orders per week (this tapered off as the season went along and some normalcy returned).
Build delivery costs into your price, “or it will eat you alive”
To break down and pack up boxes, they rented closed restaurants and hired many out-of-work restaurant staff, “some of the best people in the industry,” Zaid said. Delivery was based on distance from Union Square, their “home base” in the city. “I urge you not to get into free delivery. You can estimate the cost. Account for it, or it will eat you alive.”
Resources and Links
Lovin’ Mama Farm: www.lovinmamafarm.com
Fox Creek Farm: www.foxcreekfarmcsa.com
Norwich Meadows Farm: www.norwichmeadowsfarm.com