Food web: Local farms find new ways to connect with customers

Lee O’Neill of Radical Roots Community Farm is one of many local farmers who has had to get creative with her business and distribution plans this year. Photo by John Robinson Lee O’Neill of Radical Roots Community Farm is one of many local farmers who has had to get creative with her business and distribution plans this year. Photo by John Robinson

At this point in the season, farmers have planted potatoes and strawberries. They’ve sown radishes, carrots, beets, and kohlrabi. They’ve transplanted broccoli and onions from interior pots to outdoor beds, and any day now, they’ll put  in the warmer-weather crops like corn and peppers. 

But as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads throughout Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order has shut down farmers’ markets and restaurants, and local farmers have had to rethink how to get food to their customers…and how to maintain their income to ensure there’s a harvest next year.

“At this time of year, we have a lot invested in the ground and not a lot of cash on hand,” says Jim Marzluff of Sweet Greens Farm in Scottsville. “Those first few markets are really important to us.” 

More than half of Sweet Greens’ revenue comes from local farmers’ markets. “It’s such a good way to sell produce in this area,” says Marzluff. 

That number’s even higher—95 percent—for Whisper Hill Farm, also in Scottsville. “We’re going to have tons of produce,” says farmer Holly Hammond.

Hammond and Marzluff plan to put what they’d normally sell at the market into community supported agriculture shares. Both farms had moved away from the CSA model in recent years, but right now, it seems like the best option to feed customers and financially sustain the farms.

Though they understand the dire importance of practicing social distancing, farmers, who already adhere to very strict food safety standards, are frustrated by the new rules. Lee O’Neill of Radical Roots Farm says that markets could likely observe even stricter measures than grocery stores—limiting how many people are in the space at once, allowing only farmers to touch the goods—and so she wonders why the markets are not also considered essential.

To help fill the gap, Local Food Hub is offering a drive-up, no-contact micro-market. Customers can go to the organization’s website to order locally produced fruits and veggies, milk, eggs, cheese, meats, and more. At the pickup location, LFH employees and farmers place the bagged order in the customer’s trunk.

And starting Saturday, April 11, the City Market will switch to a “City Market To-Go” model, operating from 8am to noon on Saturdays until further notice. Customers can sign up for an account, place an order online, and choose a 30-minute pickup window. During that time, they’ll be able to pick up their bag from Pen Park.

Farmers say there’s also been increased interest in CSA programs from customers over the past two weeks, particularly from those who are anxious that there might eventually be a food shortage.

Bellair Farm, located just outside of Charlottesville, is perhaps unique in that its business model is based almost entirely around a CSA program, which farm manager Michelle McKenzie says could provide enough produce for 700 families for its 22-week duration. (A half share, enough for the average-size family, costs $390 for the season, about $17 per week.) While Bellair won’t have to adapt its business much, it will stop its market-style CSA pickup and switch to pre-packaged bags that customers can retrieve quickly.

Radical Roots will also offer a few CSA shares this year to make up for its lost market business, and it’s participating in Local Food Hub’s micro-market, but O’Neill expects her farm’s “saving grace” will be its wholesale business with area groceries like Feast!, Integral Yoga, and Whole Foods. There’s no guarantee, though, that customers on tight pandemic budgets will opt for the slightly more expensive, locally grown organic tomato, rather than the cheaper, corporate farm-grown one. “Usually we can’t produce enough” for the stores, says O’Neill, but she imagines this year could be different. 

Since fall 2019, when this photo was taken, the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, which grows and distributes produce to public and subsidized housing communities, has lost more than 80 percent of its planting-bed space. Photo by Zack Wajsgras

While most area farms work out how to distribute their bounties, one farm located in the heart of Charlottesville worries it won’t have enough food for its consumers’ needs.

The Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville offers city residents the opportunity to collaboratively grow and harvest organic produce that is then distributed at no cost to public and subsidized housing communities, “people who might not otherwise have access to fresh produce,” says Richard Morris, farm and foodroots program director at UACC.

During the 2019 season, UACC’s three gardens, located at the Friendship Court, South First Street, and Sixth Street housing developments, had a combined 25,000 square feet of vegetable-bed space. But with the Friendship Court and South First Street spots slated for redevelopment, UACC was only able to plant at Sixth Street—4,400 square feet of bed space—for the 2020 season.

“We’re down, but not out,” says Morris. With less than one-fifth of its previous planting area to work with, he says they’ve employed some intensive growing techniques, such as vertical planting.

As unemployment rates soar, Morris expects that those members of our community who are already food insecure (about 17 percent of the city’s population) will have greater demand for produce…and that more of our neighbors will become food insecure in the coming months.

He hopes that other, larger farms and distributors with excess produce might donate it to the UACC’s new Harvest a Bushel for the Community program.

Overall, farmers say they want this moment to help the community understand the reliability, and thus the importance, of local food. It’s part of their mission, after all, to feed their neighbors.

“For me, having this very clear, outlined mission of what my role is in this crisis has brought me more peace than anything else in this time,” says McKenzie. “Knowing that I’ve got a job to do, and my job is to grow food, safely. That’s what I keep returning to.”

Dining decline

Farms that supply to area restaurants, and not just individual customers, face enormous challenges, too. As restaurants have either closed completely or switched to carry-out and delivery models, they’re not cooking as much, which means placing fewer, if any, orders with small farms.

Around half of Free Union Grass Farm’s business comes from local restaurants. This year, farmer Joel Slezak planned to raise 2,500 ducks and sell 90 percent of them to local restaurants. But a few weeks ago, orders from restaurants “disappeared overnight,” and Slezak canceled his duckling order. Instead, he’ll raise chickens and laying hens, whose meat and eggs, respectively, are easier to sell to home cooks via the farm’s website. Slezak says he’s had increased interest from individual customers, and despite the loss of his restaurant clientele, business is booming. He does worry that at some point, individual customers will run out of money and not be able to afford local food prices, which tend to be higher than those at grocery stores.

Ara Avagyan of Double H Farm has some worries, too. From December through May, his farm relies entirely on restaurants for its income. “That’s just enough” for the Avagyan family to pay the bills and keep the lights on. He continues providing to restaurants throughout the spring, summer, and fall, but he relies on farmers market sales of leafy greens, eggs, pork, and more, for the money to feed his livestock: dozens of cows, hundreds of pigs and chickens. Double H has pivoted to direct-to-customer sales through its website, and is selling to small groceries like Integral Yoga, but Avagyan says only time will tell if that model will be successful.

This article was updated Wednesday, April 8 to include information about the City Market To-Go, announced April 7.

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