COVID-19 and the resulting disruptions in food supply chains made it hard for grocery stores around the nation to make sure their shelves were stocked. Farm-to-Table businesses have stepped up their game since March to help fill in the gaps. However, it’s not been without challenges. Erin Pirro is a Certified Agriculture Consultant with Farm Credit East. She says the entrepreneurs behind the businesses had to make a lot of changes to the way they do business in order to succeed because of limited contact orders.
“A lot of producers went online; they developed systems to facilitate online ordering, which meant building a technological platform, or expanding an existing one, to cover hundreds if not thousands of SKUs, all of which needed prices, descriptions, pictures, the proper sales tax treatment. None of this is fast, but it had to happen in a hurry, and it had to happen right, and they did it.”
Trevor Hoff owns and operates Local Homestead Products in New Windsor, Maryland, which is an “on-farm” market that includes produce, beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. When COVID-19 ramped up in March and into April, people who couldn’t fill their grocery needs began heading to local food producers like him, with his business suddenly booming.
“We had one Saturday that we did more business than we did the whole first year we were open. So, in 12 hours, we did more than the whole first year and you start looking back at things and say, ‘were we just wasting our time before this?’ So it is an awful situation that has happened, but it was a situation where local producers were able to step up with the help of Farm Credit, especially for us, to make these advancements very quickly to keep on going.”
Hoff says the changes they made to keep customers safe actually made it more challenging to keep up with demand.
“We started limiting how many people could come into our store, so we limited down to 15 at first and then realized we needed to limit it down to ten people. Then it was ten people including employees in our store, so then you’re starting to scale back and you’re having to make sure that you’re running as many registers as you can. During some of this, we were running three registers; we were running one in the greenhouse and two in the market, so you have one person stocking the shelves, two people in the market running the registers, and you can now only have seven customers in your store.”
Alex Ball is the owner and operator of Old City Acres, a small farm near Belleville, Michigan. He also runs greenhouses that do most of their business early in the spring. The timing of COVID-19 really cut into his cash flow as people couldn’t come out to shop. One of the bigger challenges for smaller businesses is keeping enough capital free to make the changes needed to meet growing food demand.
“My plan to maintain this production into 2021 is to use some of our now freed up capital to employ more people. That’s my plan at this point because right now all of the foundational work, all of our ordering systems, our infrastructure, and our clientele is all there. We’ve built all that, it’s here and we’re good.”