Business at farmer’s markets, CSAs spikes in wake of global pandemic
Clagett Farm wanted to hit 300 CSA members by mid-May.
Now, thanks to the coronavirus, the Prince George’s County, Md., farm will probably get there by mid-April. Twice as many people as usual are signing up every day, said Carrie Vaughn, the farm’s vegetable production manager.
“Every now and then I’ll get a comment like, ‘Oh it’s so great you’re open, and I have access to vegetables,’” she said.
In the face of a global pandemic that has shuttered schools and businesses across the country and cleared grocery store shelves of many staples and other food items, farm CSAs said they’re seeing a surprising boost in membership.
“Consumers are turning in droves to local farmers for safe, fresh food, and this means we farmers have to hustle,” said Dena Leibman, executive director of Future Harvest, a regional organization that trains beginning farmers and supports the local food market.
Pam Stegall, owner of Calvert Farm in Cecil County, Md., said she’s taken several phone calls from people interested in her CSA due to the coronavirus and has added people. She’s in the middle of a winter CSA that’s nearly over, and her 20-week spring-to-summer CSA begins in mid-May.
“I think food insecurity and the coronavirus is pushing that issue,” she said. “They don’t want to be hassled by going to the grocery store is the usual comment. They’re afraid of the food chain.”
To capitalize on this blooming interest, Future Harvest last week launched an online map identifying hundreds of farms and markets in the area selling directly to consumers. In just a few days, it’s been viewed about 15,000 times, Leibman said.
It’s not just CSAs either. There’s been a surge in demand for many local growers, said Beckie Gurley, who runs Calvert’s Gift Farm in Sparks, Md., and Chesapeake Farm to Table, a food aggregator that serves retail customers and restaurants. About 95 percent of its customers are restaurants, and the remainder is families and individuals. Two weeks ago, the restaurants disappeared, she said. Regardless, business has picked up, and they’re doing home deliveries.
Gurley was one of several local farmers who joined a video conference call March 25 that attracted at least 100 people listening to various farmers about agriculture’s response to the coronavirus.
“Local is the new normal,” Gurley said. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for as local farmers. I don’t want to say it’s a fabulous opportunity, but I think we deserve it. We’ve been talking about this for a really long time, and I’m glad that people are looking to us.”
Gorman Farms/CSA in Laurel, Md., has seen a slight uptick in sales, said co-owner Dave Liker, but he’s not sure what that means. The virus has placed an emphasis on food security.
“We are motivated and working hard on everything thrown at us,” he said in an email. “We have also already implemented a boost to our already high standards of … cleanliness, sanitation and food safety, while doing as much social distancing as possible.”
The coronavirus has also altered how CSAs deliver their food to customers. Stegall’s CSA had to think fast after many of her 32 delivery sites, many of which are companies, churches and synagogues, closed. She’s in the process of changing many of them. But it’s not just customers. Suppliers have also been affected, she said. She was “warned” by a supplier to quickly pick up an order of seed potatoes last week.
“I was afraid if I didn’t pick it up that it might go take a vacation somewhere,” Stegall said.
Clagett Farm still isn’t quite sure how it’s going to get its food to customers. Typically, Vaughn said, customers come to the farm in Upper Marlboro and choose from an array laid out on benches. While they’re doing that they’re also able to pick flowers and herbs. That’s going to need to change.
But at least they’re still coming.
“I think this is a great time for the public to reconnect with their local farmers,” she said. “Farming is an essential business, and I’m really hoping that this period of crisis, as horrible as it is, will remind us how important it is that we have successful local farms.”