Reese shares lessons from dealing with pandemic
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Prior to 2018, Ashley Reese knew she was passionate about growing fruits and vegetables but was a neophyte when it came to farming.
She enrolled in the Annie’s Project night course offered through Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service in New Brunswick and was off and running into her agricultural career.
At the annual New Jersey Agricultural Convention last month, Reese, sales manager at Eastmont Orchards in Colts Neck, N.J., spoke about lessons she learned from operating during the coronavirus pandemic.
In retrospect, “the pandemic gave us opportunities to enhance our various businesses because we had to,” she said.
“We had so many executive orders and regulations that came to us that we had to pay attention to and implement into our practices. They felt like struggles at the time, but looking back at it, I really can see how it was a benefit,” Reese said.
She spoke briefly about the finance, personnel and legal aspects of operating the orchard during the pandemic.
First, there were additional potential liabilities that came to Eastmont that staff didn’t have to deal with before.
“We also worked to find that balance between providing excellent customer service and at the same time complying to all the executive orders.”
Every year, she added, most smart farmers have a plan and create a budget, monitor everything but plan for the worst.
“No one can really prepare you for a pandemic,” she said, “and no one could have prepared us for the fact that we needed additional sanitation stations, or that a lot of people utilized plexi-glass.
Once this all started happening in March of 2020, we really had to figure out what we were doing; it was an exceptionally difficult challenge.”
Eastmont Orchards opens up to throngs of you-pick enthusiasts for peach and apple picking every year in mid-July and closes usually at the end of October.
At the peak of the season, Eastmont employs about 80 people. In 2020, Reese had to hire more than 95. That’s hard to plan for, she said.
“We realized based on the influx of customers that we were no longer just selling apples and peaches. We were actually selling a really safe place for people to gather and bring their families.”
Eastmont Orchards does not charge admission, she said, and people are asked in advance – and notified with signage — to be forthright and pay for fruit they are eating while out amongst the rows of trees.
“We simply sell our fruit, people pay for what they pick, and that’s it. We are a pick-your-own operation that really relies on our farm aesthetic and family feel. For us to raise our prices during this timeframe was a really tough decision, but we’re glad we did it because of all the increased costs. We had to really understand and know our value and worth” Reese said.
Reese credited Gabi Grunstein at the Freehold offices of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and others on the team there for their help.
“They were a resource during this time. Like many farmers who don’t like to ask for help, we didn’t reach out for anything, but through a contact at the local Board of Ag meeting, this gentleman reached out to me and told me about this amazing program, the coronavirus food assistance program, which gave us a grant that helped our business and helped create a security blanket for money we spent on personal protection expenses.”
She added: “I highly recommend you attend your local board of ag meetings and reach out to your local USDA representatives so that you at least have them in your back pocket in the event there’s another pandemic or you find yourself in a situation where the weather really impacts your crops.”
To bring on extra employees she made use of free social media like Facebook and Instagram and Eastmont Orchards’ own website.
“I realized, based on monitoring my social media that there were peak times in which customers were reviewing my posts more heavily so I found out specifically Thursday through Sunday, if I would post something specifically with my other stories I would get a lot of calls by Monday morning whether it be from an employee or the parent of a prospective employee.”
Another way she found success to boost staffers at Eastmont was by encouraging all employees to reach out to their friends as well.
“Word-of-mouth is a great way to maintain and retain employees,” she said, “but I also found out our employees were absolutely more likely to tell other people and their friends about job openings if they were proud of where they worked and they were really brought into [operations] at the company.
“One of the great benefits of using the agricultural minimum wage is it allows you to reward hard-working employees,” she said. “We have a really great training program and we set the expectations right away: what they need to wear, what they will be doing, and once we have them on board, we give them a tour of the farm and show them why; why all of this is so important.”
Once new employees start, “I’ll check in with them throughout the day, and then we’ll follow up with them to make sure they’re fitting in. Once we’ve established a relationship with the employee, we start giving them responsibility.”
Reese stressed that giving teenagers some sense of responsibility is a huge motivator in creating conscientious employees. “If you give them some sort of responsibility they absolutely buy in, and I find at that juncture if you give them just a slight incremental raise in pay that just drives it home and they will absolutely come back the following year.”