If there has been anything I have learned from experiencing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic these past few months, it is how amazing my farming community has been in rising up to meet the needs of their community and supporting each other. We make up truly important, interconnected food webs within the local food shed. We may grow different crops, but we all have a strong work ethic and the desire to feed people local food. I believe it is crucial that we see our farmer peers not as competition, but as collaborators working towards the same goal. There is plenty to go around. We are stronger together and can offer more exciting options to our customers if we join forces.
How My Farm Has Collaborated During the Pandemic
This year happened to be a very good blueberry season for my farm. The early (and frequent!) heat waves brought on a lot more fruit than I was used to moving in a short period of time. Since a lot of farmers started opening farm stands and offering CSA subscriptions to increase their sales avenues in response to COVID 19, I reached out to my farmer friends and asked them if they wanted to offer my blueberries as an add-on to their boxes and make some additional income. Five different farms sold the berries to their customers, a win for all of us. When another farm has an exceptional product that you can bring in and offer to your customers, it reflects on you.
I have been selling apples, microgreens, sheep dairy products, coffee, elderberry syrup, and more from farmer and artisan friends on my Virtual Farm Stand page, which I know is helpful during these times for both the farmers and my community. I usually just take my percent in trade, as I love what my friends produce.
One farmer friend and I have a running trade total. She grows in a warmer area than I do and had certain crops a month or so earlier than I did. I brought in her produce to create more diversity in my CSA boxes. In turn, she was selling my blueberries to her customers. We have been meeting and trading various organic row crops for blueberries since April, but now that my crops are in full force and the blueberries are winding down, we may not even end up exchanging money. The trade economy is wonderful, and so much easier if you are able to develop this kind of win-win relationship with other farmers.
Considerations When Collaborating
Set Clear Prices and Document Sales Commitments
If you are going to join forces with other farmers, it is important to be clear on what is expected. Be sure to communicate how much you are asking for your product, and what the buyer will get for that price. If that prices changes from week to week, be sure to let the buyer know ahead of time before selling more. This allows them to either increase the price to their customers or choose not to buy. I find that texting or emailing is a good way to keep track of these things. Without documentation, things can get confusing quickly.
Photos Help with Sales Expectations and Marketing
Providing photos of an item helps clarify what the buyer will receive. In addition to a photo, I may also include product weight information, or clarify the number of baskets in a case when selling cases. Photos are also great for promoting, so if you are offering a case of something it is best to provide a picture of the box and the product inside.
Photos help with sales to consumers too. You can help the farm selling your product by promoting that farm on your social media pages and tagging them in your post. Doing so will help them get more customers.
Set Clear Payment Expectations
Identify how you want to be paid, and what works for your farmer collaborator. I use a multitude of payment options. Typically, I’m flexible and can work with the desired payment method of my collaborator. However, if I have not worked with someone before, I usually want payment at pick up. But, as trust develops, so do the terms. I accept cash, 7- to 14-day terms for sending payment in the mail, Venmo, Zelle, and PayPal. Remember to provide an invoice for their records and yours. This allows you to keep documentation of what you sold, as well as what you brought in to sell to your customers—records that are important for your organic inspection.
Follow Through with Your Commitments
Be sure to deliver on what you promise. This goes for quality and quantity. The farm selling your product has likely taken money from customers in advance for your product. If you don’t come through, they will have to go back and explain to their customers that they couldn’t get your product. Or, if the product arrives in a condition less than desirable, they will need to provide a refund. This takes up precious time, and time is money. It is also never fun to explain to a customer they won’t be getting what they had hoped for. Given this, it is a good idea to underestimate your inventory (but let the farmer know you have a few extras if you come up with more customers).
Collaborating Grows a Resilient Farm Community
Getting creative with collaboration can expand opportunities for all collaborators. Return the favor and think about what you can do for the farm selling your product to reciprocate. Is there some way you can help them with product they need to move? What other ways can you join forces? Think about the big picture and how you can help your fellow farmer. Did you just get hooked up with a great little market that is giving you a good price for your fruit? Maybe you can introduce another farmer to the buyer and stoke them out, too. Growing and selling perishable food is a tough business; how can you help your farm community stay strong and resilient? Collaborating is one of the keys to success!
* * *
About the Author: Jamie Collins, owner of CCOF certified Serendipity Farms near Monterey, California, has farmed organically for two decades. She sells produce via farmers’ markets, CSA, and other direct-to-consumer outlets. On the side, she works as an organic inspector and writes about food and farming for various publications.
Funding Acknowledgement: Funding for this blog post was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM180100XXXXG055.