Farmers market vendors share how pandemic is affecting business

“Customers are stocking up on economical cuts like ground beef and roasts,” says Tamara Johnson, who worked Neighborhood Roots’ “zero contact” market April 23 at Bachman’s on Lyndale. Submitted photo

Farmers are essential workers. During this unprecedented time, they are still up at dawn to care for livestock, start seeds, make repairs and do everything else it takes to get food to market. Without their hard work and resourcefulness, our plates would be empty. A global pandemic underscores the vital importance of strong local food systems. Farmers around the world are facing new challenges and small farms are particularly vulnerable.

Small business owners must wear many hats. To run a small farm, you need to be your own accounting department, sales team, marketing team, operations manager and dispatcher. The new guidelines that protect the health and safety of our community add extra challenges to an already difficult job. As in-person sales drop off because folks are staying home, farmers are working to transform their business model to accommodate online shoppers. Farmers are improving their websites and social media presence. They are learning how to efficiently fulfill orders and arrange deliveries. For many farmers market vendors, this is new territory.

We asked a few of our vendors to describe the varying ways that the coronavirus pandemic has affected their businesses. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Liz Dwyer
Dancing the Land Farm

We’re changing our ratio of food and flowers to be much more food heavy, which is a little scary because flowers bring a much higher margin for us financially. But we sell to florists and designers for the wedding trade, and people are definitely postponing weddings right now.

Overall, our CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] sales are way down. We are nowhere near where I had hoped to be at this time. I think people are feeling uncertain about their incomes and the future, and when a person is caught up in a crisis, which we are as a whole world, we tend to lose our ability to think about and plan for the future.

It’s not a new reality for a farmer to have some uncertainty in our lives — even with established markets and dedicated customers, we never know what the weather will bring or if it’ll be a crazy year for cucumber beetles or if we’ll get early frosts. So I feel like we’re a resilient lot, but we still have mortgages to pay and our own families to take care of. And this year, the uncertainty is everywhere.

I’m planting seeds just hoping I’ll have a place to sell our produce. Obviously, our restaurant accounts are on hold, or maybe off all together. Our farmers markets are uncertain. Plainly speaking, it’s now a whole lot harder for folks to get our products, and unless they’re aware, able and willing to seek us out, we’re going be in a scary place come fall.

Tamara Johnson
Johnson Family Pastures

People’s orders have been larger than usual for this time of year and a few have shared with us that they have recently bought chest freezers in order to stock up. Customers are stocking up on economical cuts like ground beef and roasts. Our spring inventory is being depleted faster than we would have anticipated pre-COVID, however we are not limiting sales as we are uncertain as to how future sales will be. Raising livestock on pasture is truly a slow-food production model. We can’t increase production quickly in response to the current demand, as it takes us two years to raise a grass-fed beef steer and six months to raise a hog.

Our kids are home with us instead of in school and day care. This has been a blessing and a challenge. The kids have been able to be more involved in the farm work than in the past — a goal we had set for our family but have had a hard time executing before. The challenge is our young children don’t have the stamina or the patience to be out working on the farm for long periods of time. They are at ages where they still need constant supervision, especially since we regularly use farm machinery to move hay to the cattle and sheep and to move building materials around. As a result, it’s like we are short a worker most days.

Andrew Hanson-Pierre
Clover Bee Farm

Something we didn’t expect is the big response to weekly orders with home delivery. We needed to sell our crops from our newly built deep winter greenhouse, and when the first crops became available, it was just about the time the coronavirus became classified as a pandemic. Quickly, we were selling out on greens and duck eggs. It’s been a great boost in our cash flow and has really helped give us some relief as we wonder how we are going to pay our mortgage this year given all the financial hardships surrounding the pandemic and the stay-home initiative.

The silver lining to all this is people are remembering to think locally and do some gardening, and those who can work from home are understanding that commuting via their car to work might not be entirely necessary.

Ryan Carda
Pollinator Works

Things have been business as usual from a grower’s perspective. The mild spring has made it pretty easy on us. The virus has given us a new challenge with figuring out how to do online ordering. I’ve been working with a friend who is a graphic designer to get something put together so customers can still get our plants. We will have a much larger selection of plants this year. Being on lockdown has had some benefits because we are able to tend to the plants more and spend more time in the greenhouses.

Kristin Thompson
Tuttie Fruittie’s

I have been told some seeds I’ve ordered are now out of stock, my juices that I will be making at market have been postponed until food items can be consumed at market, and I am venturing into online sales for pick-up orders at markets and even home delivery.

I’ve been a part of more Zoom meetings than I have in the past three years. For the most part, aside from my anxiety, everything surrounding this pandemic has been a wave of positivity because of people coming together, new ideas being created and farmers really helping each other out. Our goals are the same. We all want to grow healthy nutritious food for people and we will. I’m looking forward to this season because I feel my sense of wanting to give back to my community through food heightened. Being of service to others at this time by farming means so much more!