Coronavirus helps Md. online market flourish
SPARKS GLENCOE, Md. — Beckie Gurley winces a little when she admits it, but the coronavirus was a windfall for Chesapeake Farm to Table, a small, online farmers market in Baltimore County.
But when success hits like a fire hose, it can leave the owner hanging onto her business by a pinky.
Such was the case for Gurley’s outfit, launched in 2015 to service Baltimore’s thriving restaurant industry. But after the coronavirus spread across the region in March, pushing the state into quarantine, Chesapeake Farm to Table’s business model collapsed — and was reshaped — overnight.
A scrambling Gurley shifted the market from a business-facing operation to a retail meat and produce service for regional residents. Before the coronavirus, Chesapeake Farm to Table served just three homes. It prioritized restaurants, which purchased from a vast array of produce supplied by the market’s 25-plus local farms.
Fortunately, with everyone stuck at home, demand quickly flipped.
“I was having like 25 people a day sign up on (our website),” she said.
It required a fast recruiting effort. She employed her daughter and the young daughter of next-door neighbors who was in between jobs and had fled the pandemic in New York City. Several part-time workers from the Gurleys’ own organic operation, Calvert’s Gift Farm, also jumped in, including one who’d lost a restaurant job to the virus. Once schools closed, several teachers/hunting buddies of her husband, Jack Gurley, also agreed to help manage the frenzy.
“They did nothing but stand over the freezer and hand out meat for all the orders,” Beckie said. “We were really lucky that we had help standing by.”
They borrowed a farmer’s van. They employed their own SUV and another vehicle and began making orders to homes region-wide. But when they started getting 50 orders per day, they needed more help, so they turned to route software that processed all their orders into an efficient delivery itinerary.
The biggest challenge, however, was packaging the food. The service quickly had to shift from packing large, single-item boxes of produce for restaurants to smaller, individual orders for choosier consumers. Allowing customers to pack their own bags from sorted produce at pickup locations — like a CSA — wouldn’t work.
The more detailed process has doubled the farmers’ packaging time, which has lead to a slight increase in prices. (The Gurleys are also careful to ensure that farmers don’t undercut each other.) Now, farmers need to bag the food, which helps the service meet one of its primary goals, Gurley said — source identification, down to the farm.
“We want our customers to know who they’re getting their food from,” Beckie said. “We are not pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes. We are not buying and selling. We are helping the farmers.”
That’s critical for farmers like Bryan Alexander, who owns Good Dog Farm in Parkton, Md., with his wife Joanna Winkler. They launched their farm in 2016 after noticing an inadequate local supply of certain produce items such as sweet potatoes and winter squash. A quarter of their business moves through Chesapeake Farm to Table, which gives their farm quick and easy access to eager consumers.
“We still don’t go to farmers markets,” he said. “You could keep a brick and mortar open with all the time that all the farmers are spending at farmers markets.”
Thanks to a mild winter, Good Dog Farm still had a field full of kale and collard and mustard greens and high-tunnel produce for buyers when the virus arrived.
“It’s definitely gone up especially on the retail end of things. There’s been solid demand in the area in the past, but it exploded this year,” he said.
Alexander said he was surprised how fast Chesapeake Farm to Table made the transition.
“They were possessed getting it done,” he said. “Getting Farm to Table up in the first place was probably no less effort. I think it came naturally. I certainly couldn’t imagine anyone else pulling it off.”
Still, Gurley said she doesn’t quite know where all the customers came from or how they found her site. In early 2019 the market was averaging about $3,000 a week. Now it’s $10,000, Gurley said.
“Just word of mouth,” Jack Gurley said. “People would get something, they’d tell their friends. They’d tell their neighbors, and it spread. That’s the best way to sell something. We didn’t spend any money on advertising or make any effort whatsoever.”
Chesapeake Farm to Table saved Five Cedars Farm owned by Matt Azzam in Hampstead, Md. His hydroponic operation sells microgreens, bibb lettuce and other products.
“When COVID hit, 21 of my restaurants completely stopped ordering. One of my restaurants ordered a half order,” he said, standing inside Farm to Table’s storage and packaging facility at the Gurleys’ home. “But Chesapeake made huge orders. We went from $20 a week to $600 a week, so virtually everything I lost in restaurants got picked up in Chesapeake Farm to Table.”
Now, Chesapeake Farm to Table is looking forward. With last winter’s grocery store and local food bum-rush far in the past, ordering hasn’t decreased on the website, the Gurleys said.
“Both of us feel like this is the new normal,” Jack Gurley said. “Regardless of what happens with COVID, we have a quality product. We have a quality service. We have a customer base. We don’t really see a downside going forward, COVID or not.”
Before COVID, 95% of Farm to Table’s business was from restaurants. Five percent was from homes. Now those numbers have reversed.
Beckie said she always wanted to build a robust retail base for the website. Strangely, it took a pandemic — and several weeks of frantic work — to get it done.
“It felt really great,” she said. “It felt like this was what we were supposed to be doing.”