Small scale farms share ways to meet challenges
COCKEYSVILLE, Md. — Dena Leibman, ececutive director for Future Harvest, gathered virtually with area farmers on a live video conference call on March 25 “to share with each other how to meet these challenges, and perhaps opportunities, that lie ahead.”
Speaking almost two weeks after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued his initial orders on social distancing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Leibman opened the call’s discussion with several observations that the organization has been receiving from its member farmers.
“People are facing empty grocery store shelves and don’t even want to go into grocery stores right now,” Leibman began. “We’re hearing that consumers are turning in droves to our local farmers for safe, fresh food; and, this means we farmers have to hustle and adapt to meet this demand in safe ways and with abundant supply.”
Observing “we need to win the hearts of consumers and policy makers to bring this home,” Leibman encouraged the call’s participants to offer up their “suggestions for policy changes to strengthen our local food supply.” She then turned to Emma Jagoz, the first of four panelists for the call.
Jagoz, founding farmer for Moon Valley Farm in Woodsboro, Md., introduced her farm noting that she had recently been able to purchase and relocate to a farm in Frederick County and thus move from a half a dozen leased parcels in Baltimore County.
In her ninth year, Jagoz has a CSA program, but primarily grows for restaurants in Baltimore and D.C., the cash flow for which “dried up pretty hard last week” when Hogan’s order limited restaurant service to only carryout and delivery.
Because she already had the CSA program and a lot of the packaging available, Jagoz decided to pivot and offer a home delivery business to her CSA members and those homeowners in her delivery area.
She told those on the call that the most important aspect was to “focus on your customers.”
“Call your best customers and see how you can support them,” Jagoz said. She also encouraged participants to consider “what are the smaller parts of their business that they can grow right now.”
She urged farmers to look at other aspects of customer acquisition that can be done without significant additional costs. For instance, additional seedling flats that don’t end up getting transplanted into the fields, could be put into market packs and sold to customers.
“I strongly believe that gardening is going to be pretty hip in 2020,” she said.
After explaining the changes that she had made on her farm to ensure the safety of both her customers and employees, Jagoz ended on a theme that reverberated through the remainder of the panelists presenting: “Local is the new normal.”
Beckie and Jack Gurley, owners of Calvert’s Gift Farm and managers of Chesapeake Farm to Table, an online marketplace of 27 farmers, picked up on Jagoz’s theme.
“I feel this is the opportunity we’ve all been looking for,” said Beckie.
Like Jagoz, the Gurleys operations were centered heavily on selling to restaurants in the region and like Jagoz, they’ve been able to begin pivoting to home-based customers. In discussing the changes they’ve made or anticipated to facilitate that pivot, Jack noted that farmers “maybe shouldn’t be growing some of the things you had planned to grow this summer.”
For instance, citing the hot peppers he typically grows for his restaurants clients, Jack explained, “maybe that’s not such a hot idea for a home-based customer. So maybe we need to grow green peppers, which I hate,” for those customers. Mike Protas, owner of One Acre Farm in Dickerson, Md., and Charlotte Henderson, his Farm Membership Coordinator, shared some personal reflections.
“I never ever thought of ourselves as vital to our community, but rather as a neat vanity project to boost my own ego,” he said.
Because of that, “I never had a hoophouse,” he continued. “Now I’m looking at trying to figure out ways to feed our community on a year-round level.”
With three full-time employees and two part-time employees starting soon, Protas said that while he’s looking at ways to keep both them and his customers safe as the season begins, “I’m always stressed when I watch these things because I’m thinking about all the way that their farms are better than ours.”
Yet, rather than worrying about what you are not doing, he reminded everyone to continue communicating with their customers and to not “make perfection your enemy.”
Instead, he encouraged the call’s participants “to take all the information you’re learning and say ‘What are the small steps we can implement today to begin the process of doing this differently.’”
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