The first weekend in March this season we went to the WGBY Wine Tasting in Springfield to share samples of our farm products and maybe taste a little wine ourselves. We were unaware at the time, but we narrowly escaped participating in a super-spreader event. On Friday the 13th of March, our kids were told that the school was closing for in-person classes for 2 weeks, and they were betting each other that they wouldn’t be back to school that year.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit our farm in the same way as the rest of the country, with looming anticipation, and then all of a sudden, everything changed. We struggled with non-directive information about how to handle food safely, how often to sanitize our surfaces, and where to find a steady supply of gloves. We started bagging all of our vegetables after watching potentially contagious customers search through the bins for the best carrots. On April 1st, we closed indoor access to the store and converted to an online ordering and porchside pickup. Looking at those dates now, I struggle to remember how we managed to sort through a dizzying array of online order platforms (does it integrate with QuickBooks? How will shares be ordered? How do we take EBT benefits?) and get that all set up in two and a half weeks.
While making these changes ourselves, we were floored by the community support for our farm. The fear of entering the larger grocery stores seemed to push people to come to smaller stores, and people deepened their commitment to supporting local businesses.
The pandemic also demonstrated to us the resiliency of our local food system. We were not alone in retooling our systems; the Amherst Farmer’s Market, Mass Food Delivers, Sunderland Farm Collaborative and others all demonstrated the nimbleness of our local farmers. At the beginning of March, we had a pile of carrots in storage that we weren’t sure we could sell before our spring crop came in, and had plenty of our own sweet potatoes and onions on hand. By the middle of April, we put out a request to our farmer list-serve, and ordered 2000 pounds each of onions and potatoes, 1000 pounds of carrots, and 500 pounds each of sweet potatoes and cabbage from farms in Vermont and the near side of New York. We were ordering those crops again in early May. It was hard to find toilet paper in the store, but we were feeding our community, and supporting other farms at the same time.
Throughout the rest of the year, we were continually challenged with decisions and extra work: do we open the store to inside shoppers? What if we then have to switch back when things got worse? How do we manage pick-your-own safely? What do we do with customers that won’t wear a mask? We switched to a different online ordering platform in September, and soon found that some software glitch made our inventory drop to zero so that people couldn’t order it. We hired someone to build us a new (third!) online order system, and she found a fix to our inventory problem; it took us until Thanksgiving to work all of that out. Along the way, we have been inspired by the support we have received from our community, our fantastic farm store crew who handled it all, and your patience as we worked it all out.
Things to work on for next season
We are so grateful for the support we have received from you all through this weird time. We are looking ahead to the day when we can safely open our farm store for you to come in and to acting as a place where people can gather and celebrate local food. We don’t have it all figured out how and certainly not when the process of opening will unfold, but we are happy for the opportunity to feed our community, both those of you who have been with us from the start and those who found us this year.
I got a Costco membership for Christmas this year, and have been there once. I was simultaneously thrilled by the great deals and the large packages that could obviate the need to return soon ($20 for a pound and a half of lox!) and horrified by the both contact with hordes of people and the naked display of the power of the industrial food system.
I chose a career in organic farming because it was a way to build my own small piece of an alternative to the environmental destrution and dehumanization of industrial food. How do scale up the local and organic food system to provide more of people’s diets? How do we get this good food to communities that lack access? How do we do all of that while providing a decent living and quality of life to ourselves and our crew? And without re-creating the same economics that exist to extract income up the economic ladder?
The pandemic has shown us a window into what local farms can do, and I am hopeful that we can take the next steps to building a resilient and just food system. We have recently connected with the Regenerative Food Network that is building infrastructure in Southern Vermont and is ready to help us develop and connect to a similar vision for Western Massachusetts. It is still a fledgling work in progress, but I will be planning to share news of the effort as it develops.