In one sense, this spring is going to plan for Kyle Thom, owner of Roots Down Community Farm in Milton.
“Planting is completely on schedule and actually ahead of last year,” Thom wrote in a recent email to past members of his CSA (community supported agriculture) program. “I am expecting a fantastic year of fresh organic veggies. Already I have crops sprouting in the greenhouses for harvest next month and beyond.”
The growing is good. The selling is less certain.
Thom estimated that 75% of Roots Down’s sales come from farmers’ markets, including the Saturday morning Dane County Farmers’ Market, the Eastside Farmers’ Market in McPike Park and markets in Janesville and Fitchburg. On March 14, for the first time in its 48-year history, the Dane County Farmers’ Market canceled until further notice in response to the governor’s declaration of a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A few days later, the city’s restaurants shifted to takeout and delivery if they stayed open at all.
That has left farmers like Thom to come up with new ways to sell their produce, cheese, meat and more. Some farms are shifting focus to CSA. Others, like Landmark Creamery and Brix Cider, are aggregating local food boxes and offering them for delivery. Some are encouraging on-farm pickup and working with suddenly underemployed chefs to brainstorm new preservation methods.
Technically, farmers' markets are among the retail food establishments that can stay open as essential business, exempted from closing under Gov. Tony Evers’ executive order of March 17. But what makes farmers’ markets special most of the time — direct contact with the folks who grew the food — is dangerous when a virus is spreading and the goal is to “flatten the curve.”
“Prior to COVID-19, we’d brag about the fact that our farmers' market is not the same as a grocery store,” said Sarah Elliott, manager of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. “It’s 15, 20 direct contacts with (sellers), versus at a grocery store just one or two. Most of the time it’s something we’re proud of, but in this situation it creates challenges.”
Elliott has been hearing from farmers who are scrambling to deal with an immediate loss of income. Those with greenhouses and hoop houses have to figure out avenues to get rid of produce quickly. This week the market is piloting a program for “Local Food Pickup,” set for Tuesday and Thursday (March 26) between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the Garver Feed Mill. Pickup will be through a drive-thru lane.
“With the restaurant closings, that affects the diversification of their income stream,” Elliott said of market farmers. “We’re looking at how this is going to potentially change our landscape long term.”
No one knows when markets will be able to safely, fully return. But farmers like Thom have to plant now if they want a livelihood in the fall.
“I’m not going to risk not having product when markets open back up again so I’m planning to grow as usual,” Thom said. “I’m planning on offering home delivery for a fee, but moving the amount we move at market one order at a time will be a lot more work and likely very challenging.”
CSA makes a comeback
In recent years, Tommy Stauffer and Shawn Kuhn’s Vitruvian Farm in McFarland has focused on selling greens, microgreens and mushrooms directly to chefs. Stauffer estimated that restaurants account for 80% of the farm’s business. That’s a rare model, he said.
“At least in the medium term, most of our historic way of doing business is gone, and potentially for this whole season,” Stauffer said. “We’re trying to decide: Do we plant for the summer and farm in the hopes that restaurants come back? Our farm is operating in a gray zone.”
For now, Stauffer said, Vitruvian is “pivoting almost entirely to direct to consumer.” The farm already does a substantial amount of business with the Willy Street Co-op. They’re developing a salad mix that can be sold year-round and working on packaging for mushrooms. (The co-op has temporarily closed its bulk aisle and is trying to minimize interaction with produce).
“Hopefully in a week we’ll be a pre-packaged supplier for oyster, shiitake and potentially lion’s mane mushrooms,” Stauffer said.
The farm has an email list where it sends items available for purchase — in the winter, that’s usually things like sweet winter carrots and storage radishes, in addition to mushrooms and microgreens.
Now, Vitruvian offers on-farm pickups Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings. The owners plan to deliver their produce starting soon (minimum order $30 and a $5 delivery charge). They’re encouraging folks to “aggregate with close friends and neighbors to create larger orders.”
“We’re trying to find new customers that may want to come by or not want to go to the grocery store, as lines get longer,” Stauffer said. “We’re trying to find people who want to order together, to get the volume up.”
Eric Elderbrock of Elderberry Hill Farm in Waunakee is doing something similar, offering pickup boxes ($20/8 lbs.) of rainbow carrots, beets, potatoes and beauty heart radishes. He’s starting home delivery on Tuesday of potatoes and carrots.
Vitruvian is also reinvesting in its CSA. For many years Wisconsin was a leader in the CSA model, in which farmer and consumer share the risk and reward. In early spring, members pay a flat fee, usually around $700 for a weekly share spread over a 20-week growing season.
Cuts in health insurance reimbursements and the widespread availability of farmers’ markets caused CSA subscriptions to dwindle over the past few years. Now Carrie Sedlak at FairShare CSA Coalition said she’s seen that trend reverse.
“Some farms are now sold out or are getting close to being sold out,” Sedlak wrote in an email. “We’ve also seen a significant increase in our website traffic, more than double our average, over the past two weeks.”
Folks are using the “find your farm” search tool and reading farm profiles, actively looking for farms to sign up with, Sedlak said. “We’ve heard reports from our colleagues across the states of increased CSA sign-ups.”
Michael Kilpatrick of the Thriving Farmer podcast reported that some farms are seeing a three-to-four times increase in sales via home delivery, CSA, farm delivery and grocery stores.
Vitruvian is trying to think creatively. On a recent afternoon Stauffer met with chefs at Cadre, owned and run by chef Evan Dannells, to develop plant-based jerky using Vitruvian’s mushrooms.
“As of now, to be honest, we’re just – we’re trying to do the best we can, and we know people need food,” Stauffer said. “We have food. We will have food all year. We want to find ways to get that to people ... so we can continue to be a farm and pay our bills.”
Box it up
Anna Thomas Bates and Anna Landmark run a cheese shop, Landmark Creamery, in Paoli and sell their cheeses wholesale to grocery stores and cheesemongers. Last week, when COVID-19 closures began falling like dominoes, they sprang into action.
The first of Landmark Creamery’s “special local deliveries” went out on March 18. First there were 75 orders, then 95. They’re working with local makers of honey, organic flour, cultured butter, ground beef, potatoes and pickles. They just ask that every order includes some cheese, as that’s Landmark’s own (figurative) bread and butter.
“We were looking for kitchen basics,” said Thomas Bates, regarding box assembly. “We wanted them to be things that were for the most part pantry-stable or for the freezer.”
There have been logistical challenges to overcome with how orders work, efficiencies to figure out. It’s worth it, for now, because the alternative is dire.
“It seems like a necessary pivot we need to make to stay in business,” Thomas Bates said. “The added bonus is this is mutually beneficial to everyone involved. Residents of Madison are being able to support the same producers they’ve supported every week at the farmers market. They’re getting things either picked up at our shop or dropped on their front porch.
“And farmers who lost their outlet are getting an opportunity to move their product that otherwise would be composted, and moving it at the same price.”
This early in spring, most produce in the boxes comes through farmer Scott Williams of Garden to Be. Williams is himself an aggregator of farmers, helping to consolidate sales – currently he works with Crossroads Community Farm, Driftless Organics and Winterfell Farms for veggies.
One of the specific challenges Williams has is that home cooks don’t always want the same things restaurants do.
“A lot of the things I grow for chefs I have worked with over these 20 years ... they’re not the same types of items a lot of people are looking for at grocery store. I have a greenhouse full of edible flowers right now. That’s not something I would expect households to spend money on during this time.”
The boxes do help, if only a little.
“It hasn’t come anywhere close to meeting what my sales were when 60-70 restaurants were seeing my list twice a week,” Williams said. “We’re all pretty uncertain about what things look like. We’re three weeks away from the opening of the outdoor farmers' market on the square.
“We have to survive, pay our bills, pay our staff. But what does it even look like on the other side? Will we be able to go back to the way we were? It’s hard to prepare.”
The boxes at Brix Cider include leaf lettuce, shallots from Squashington Farm, herbal teas from Sacred Blossom and Milwaukee-roasted Drift Coffee. There’s cheese, eggs, bread and pork chops.
Some things are harder to do via delivery/pickup. Steaks and roasts, for example, are weight-based, so Landmark hasn’t been offering many of those yet. Over time, these new ways of sourcing local food should certainly cost more, as they require more organization and labor from farmers.
For now, they’re at least somewhat convenient, and in times like these, necessary for local producers to maintain some cash flow.
“We’re all taking it day by day,” Thomas Bates said. “For today, this is working, and helping some long term local producers stay in business.”
Market to market
Farmers’ markets across the country have remained open. From Oakland and Sacramento, California to Cleveland, Houston and New York City, these markets are implementing new rules.
Vendors may be required to wear gloves. Customers are not permitted to handle food. Those standing in line are meant to stay six feet apart, for safety — some put tape on the ground to mark that off. Everyone’s been encouraged to switch to electronic/card payment methods.
“Farmers' markets are staying open, but that can be a really tricky area,” said Elliott, the Dane County Farmers’ Market manager. “We also have a social responsibility regarding upholding the public health and safety.”
At first, Elliott and her board pushed back when the state revoked the market’s permit (the warm weather Saturday market is held on the Capitol Square, which is state property). Elliott suggested the DCFM could institute similar precautionary measures to what they were seeing elsewhere around the country.
So far, the state of Wisconsin hasn’t agreed to that. Elliott believes when Executive Order 72 (regarding the COVID-19 health emergency) is revoked the DCFM’s license will be reinstated.
In the meantime, the market is piloting a program that would allow customers to order from various market vendors and pick up later, at pre-defined times depending on the first letter of your last name. (A-F picks up between 4 and 4:30 p.m., G-L picks up from 4:30-5 p.m. and so on.)
The system is clunky — if there were eight to 10 farmers and you wanted to order from four of them, you’d have to make four separate payments via PayPal, Venmo or check. Still, it’s something. A recent list of available items included wild rice, frozen sweet corn, grassfed lamb, ground spices from Savory Accents and a “pork power pack” from Rockwell Ridge.
“Customers are telling us loud and clear that what they want is to order ahead and pull up without getting out of their vehicle,” Elliott said. “We’re not at a stage yet where we know how to do that in a way that’s actually proper.”
Leslie Schroeder, manager of the Eastside Farmers’ Market, heard from the city of Madison that she and her board can apply for a permit at McPike Park, but they’re not going to get it, at least not right away. The board has started to consider other options, like a nearby church parking lot or going back to the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center.
“We’re really looking to make the market still happen, obviously with distancing,” Schroeder said. “It would be ideal to have it at that park because we can invite people to wash their hands before they come to the market. Another rule is, nobody will be touching the food except for the vendor. That’s good.”
Schroeder is trying to gauge community support for a drive-up market, similar to what the DCFM is doing. The challenges are, again, logistical.
“Tomatoes don’t grow themselves in one-pound increments,” Schroeder said. “If you’re talking restaurant scale, 50 lbs. of tomatoes is doable. There might need to be some kind of minimum. How are we going to do this to scale and make it work?”
Farmers’ decisions are time-sensitive. Schroeder has already heard from vendors who are thinking they should “sit out this year,” not plant their fields or put them all into corn and soy. Others have already started planting, telling Schroeder, “I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m going to do what I do, because people need to eat.”
“They’re all scared,” she said. If the state changes its mind about the market by June, “are the vendors going to have thousands of pounds of rotten food? Or will they have decided to not plant it?”
Funds for farms
Alarmed by the speed with which markets and restaurants closed, food security advocate Joe Mingle launched a $20,000 fundraiser on March 15 at GoFundMe.com. Mingle coordinates “Buy One for a Neighbor,” encouraging farmers’ market shoppers to buy and donate an extra bag of local food to a lower-income family.
“We were going to expand to five markets, but there’s a possibility these markets won’t happen at all,” Mingle said. “Some farmers will be fine if they miss the markets, but there are some, if they miss one or two, are likely to go under. Many of them operate on very thin margins.
“We’ve been really good about building up this local food system, but now we’re losing a substantial portion of it.”
At FairShare CSA Coalition, there are Partner Shares funds available for Dane County residents — discounts on CSA shares for eligible families, up to $300, and flexible payment plans.
And on March 18, FairShare and the Dane County Farmers’ Market launched another GoFundMe campaign, an “emergency farmer fund,” with a goal of $10,000.
“The uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak impairs farmers’ ability to plan for the future at a time when many are seeding and preparing for the growing season ahead,” the campaign says.
Mingle’s partners on the fundraiser are Schroeder from the eastside market, Raphael Ragland (a partner on the Darbo Pantry Project) and FEED Kitchens manager Chris Brockel (a partner on Healthy Food For All, another food security nonprofit). They want to use the funds they raise to enter into contracts with farmers, placing advance orders for things like potatoes and carrots later in the season.
“We can’t allow this local food system to get wiped out,” Mingle said. “We can anticipate there will be less food available but more people in need. With unemployed restaurant workers, stores that are closing, losing work at the university ... people are going to need more food, not less.”
It’s a sentiment several farmers echoed. Thom at Roots Down Community Farm is determined to adapt.
“Basically farmers need to make a living and people still need to eat,” he said. “We have to find ways to work together to make this work.”