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We Are Essential: Pivoting to Stay Afloat

by Guest Blogger |

“We Are Essential” is a blog series that explores how the organic community is navigating the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Our farms, ranches, and businesses deliver truly essential services, staying open and in the field to provide nutritious food to our communities. Each week, we will share a new story that highlights how organic is critical to the global response. We welcome hearing how you are impacted and invite you to email us at policy@ccof.orgWe also have a list of crisis resilience resources to help you weather the COVID-19 pandemic

As an organic farmer for almost two decades, I’ve adjusted my farming operation to meet numerous challenges. Below I share some of the ways I have pivoted my marketing strategy to navigate these strange days of the COVID-19 pandemic to earn income, support neighboring farms, and feed my community. 

Switching Tactics

Until three weeks ago, I hadn’t considered restarting our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Across the board, CSAs were becoming untenable for farmers. My farm’s CSA decreased from 350 members in 2009 to just 45 in 2017 because of competition with companies that sell meal prep kits or produce offerings delivered right to your door. Everything changed, though, when my farm’s income from farmers’ markets appeared to be tanking. Attendance at markets plummeted as people became more cautious about social distancing and had likely just panic-bought enough food for many weeks in quarantine. 

Worried about the loss of income at a lean time of the year, I offered a four-week share of produce on my virtual farm stand Facebook group. 

I started the Facebook group to sell directly to consumers without the hassle of being a CSA. I offered items we had in abundance, but I did not offer a weekly subscription. Upon receiving funds, I placed totes with the produce offerings inside our farm gate and customers would pick up their orders before 6:00 p.m. on the honor system. It relieved me of the pressure to be a farmer, marketer, and customer service representative. 

Now, I’m using my Facebook group to create a short-term CSA. I received 45 sign-ups during the first week, and now on our second week, we are up to 75. I chose to limit the CSA to four weeks to reduce the commitment from my customers as well as for the farm. This short-term model makes it easier financially for the customer. It also provides me the flexibility to decide whether I want to continue the CSA once things return back to normal. 

Adjusting to Increased Demand

After I set up my new CSA, all of a sudden, attendance at famers’ markets went back up. People began to realize that the farmers’ market was safer than shopping at grocery stores, as it is out in open air and fewer humans have touched the food to get it to market. Now my farm has been selling out of produce at our farmers’ markets. 

Since I wasn’t planting or planning for a CSA this year, I’m now strategizing to meet the increased customer demand. I plan to buy other farmers’ organic fruits and vegetables to keep the boxes filled and exciting. I’m also managing the supply and demand of our products so that I can still attend farmers’ markets and sell the food we grow. You can only sell what you grow at the Certified Farmers’ Markets, but you can buy other farm product for inclusion in your CSA. 

Considerations for Staring Your Own CSA

Now is the time to start a CSA if you don’t already have one. It looks like we are going to be in this situation longer than we were expecting, and people want a safe way to grab their fresh goods with little interaction with others. If you weren’t planning on adding an additional sales outlet to your business plan, you can work with other farmers to get through while you ramp up your crop plantings. If most of your farm income came from restaurants, your farm is likely hurting from a lack of sales. This is the time when there is not only a market, but a genuine need for all small- to medium-sized farms to provide CSA shares.

If you don’t know many other organic farms in your area, check out CCOF’s Organic Directory & Resource Guide that you should have received at the beginning of this year or access it online. Use it to reach out to those who grow in your area and see what options there are for collaboration and buying what you don’t currently grow or offer. This will help you keep your boxes filled out with a nice variety and keep your customers happy. 

Some farmers who also have a CSA might be willing to trade produce with your farm, essentially swapping to keep each of your farm’s CSA boxes varied and exciting. No matter how dedicates a customer is to eating seasonally, they are not going to be too stoked if they receive the same thing week after week. This week, I am trading my organic lemons for some organic mint and arugula, and I have secured a pallet of organic potatoes, onions, and lentils from a distributor to have core staples for my boxes for the upcoming weeks.  

Of course, it is best to support another farmer directly if at all possible, instead of paying a middleman, but it might be your only option for certain things. Right now, I think it is important to provide people with things that last, like winter squash, potatoes, nuts, dried fruit, beans, and rice.

If you are representing your CSA as certified organic, you will need to update your Organic System Plan to reflect that you are buying from other farmers, and how you maintain organic certificates and keep track of the receipts from what you bought and put in your boxes.

Feeding Our Communities During Crisis

Personally, my revamped CSA is about getting healthy, organic food to the people in any way I can in this time of crisis. Customers are appreciative of my effort. I am seeing an outpouring of so much gratitude as people pick up their fruits and vegetables. As they line up to get their produce, one by one our customers express their gratitude directly to my farm workers, really grasping how important it is that they are still coming to work to care for crops and harvest food. It makes my heart happy that my workers are being thanked and appreciated for the heroes they are and have always been. 

In times of crisis, it is the local foodshed that can provide for the community. That means all of us farmers, large and small, hold a responsibility to make sure our neighbors are fed. I hope you are up for the challenge. 

Thank you, fellow farmers, for all the hard work you do. Stay healthy and safe. 

Jamie Collins 

Additional Resources for Addressing Marketing Challenges Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic: For additional resources on CSAs, on-line marketing platforms, and other marketing options address COVID-19 challenges, visit the CCOF COVID-19 resource page.

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.