BUSIER THAN USUAL Farms, farmers markets adjusted to pandemic in 2020
The Recorder, March 17, 2021. By DOMENIC POLI, Staff Writer
To help curtail a once-in-a-century pandemic, governments throughout the country took the unprecedented step of temporarily shutting down businesses unless they were deemed essential. And what is more essential than food?
Farms and farmers markets, like virtually all facets of the economy, had to adapt to operating during a public health crisis. Safety measures such as social distancing and increased sanitization practices were enacted so agricultural workers could keep the world fed.
David Wissemann, who co-owns Warner Farm and Millstone Farm Market in Sunderland, said the family businesses were well-positioned for this pandemic.
“We were shifting our farm in a direction that happened to work in the pandemic. We weren’t selling to a lot of institutions and restaurants,” he said. “We had a pretty diversified portfolio of where we sent our produce to.” Wissemann said the farm’s CSA membership doubled — from 300 to 600 — from 2019 to 2020, and “signups this year are going really well.” He also said the most prominent way the pandemic affected farm operations was to delay crop plantings by workers. He said business has boomed at the Millstone Farm Market, which his family acquired in 2018.
“People feel safer shopping at a local store than large grocery stores,” he said, adding that the store had curbside pickup from the end of March through the middle of June.
Warner Farm is also the site of Mike’s Maze, a popular annual corn maze. Wissemann said 2020 was “a good maze year” and staff simply limited the number of people on the premises at any given hour and eliminated the inflatable jump pad. He said maze business was down only slightly from 2019, which was the busiest year on record.
Women-run Riverland Farm in Sunderland, certified as a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) farm, already had several precautions in place and the focus shifted to crew logistics when the pandemic struck. Owner Emily Landeck said she had to figure out how to transport fewer people per vehicle on the 40-acre farm and to prevent too many workers from clustering in one location.
She said the farm was already set up for wholesale, and she also worked to ensure she could get her produce to places that remained open. Like Wissemann, Landeck said “demand was through the
roof in the pandemic in a way we definitely did not expect.” She credits this to small-town residents’ love for knowing where their food comes from and who grows it, as well as to people wanting to buy locally to shorten the supply chain and, therefore, reduce the number of people handling their food.
To adapt, Landeck said Riverland Farm established curbside pickup for its winter CSA. The farm is also one of the founders of the Sunderland Farm Collaborative, an online retail platform consumers can use to craft custom orders.
Upinngil Farm in Gill had to move around some of its infrastructure so its open-air farm store would accommodate social distancing. Sorrel Hatch, daughter of founder Clifford Hatch, said it appears customers appreciate the small open-air store, as business there has nearly doubled since the pandemic began.
“On the whole, I feel like it’s provided a really vital service during this time,” Sorrel Hatch said. “We provide a lot of staples — not just stuff that we grow.”
One of the biggest differences has been the absence of weekly familystyle meals for employees.
“We don’t do that anymore and I really miss that,” Sorrel Hatch said. She also said staff meetings changed, in that workers now branch off into smaller groups.
Losing wholesale accounts
Still, business has not been easy for farms that were supported primarily by sales to restaurants and schools, as well as at festivals, such as Jim Bragdon, whose family has owned Country Maple Farms in Shelburne since 2009. Bragdon’s main customers are restaurants that were largely shut down, as were festivals, where his business brings a concession trailer to sell fried dough smeared with maple cream. Regardless, he will continue to make his products.
“The trees produce sap either way, and we’re going to produce the syrup whether we have customers or not,” Bragdon said.
Similarly, Timothy Smith, who owns Apex Orchards in Shelburne, said the business that has been in his family since 1828 was hit hard when schools were closed in the spring.
However, joining the Sunderland Farm Collaborative connected the orchard with more wholesale accounts.
“It’s been very good, and they’re great people to deal with down there,” Smith said.
He also mentioned the 2020 crop was so large the business was able to provide 20,000 pounds of food to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Smith said the pick-your-own season was mostly harmonious, with only a couple of customers asked to leave for declining to wear a mask. Smith also said his pruners worked individually, as opposed to in crews, to accommodate social distancing.
Farmers markets carry on
But a farm’s crops aren’t sold exclusively on site and at grocery stores. Farmers markets are popular settings for locavores. But they, too, have had to adjust to these challenging
Tony Leger, who took over as chair of the Orange Farmers Market Committee a couple of weeks ago, said when the pandemic began last year “there was a lot of uncertainty around what to do, what we could do.” There was a meeting at the Orange Armory, the site of the market, with Health Director Matthew Fortier, the Orange Board of Health and Community Development Director Alec Wade to determine how to hold the farmers market in the parking lot and keep it as safe as possible.
Opening day was held around June 1, about two weeks later than usual, so the committee and individual vendors could prepare. Leger said a couple of entrances were set up, foot traffic flow was choreographed and regulated, and cautionary signs were posted for shoppers.
“My experience at the market … was that traffic was good, considering COVID, and people were wanting to buy local stuff,” Leger recalled, “and so we’re really hoping for a repeat of that this year.”
He said the 10 to 14 vendors did not encounter any “anti-maskers,” but it was disheartening to have to somewhat eliminate many people’s favorite part of a farmers market — the camaraderie and close-knit social aspect.
“It’s a community event. People come chat with the vendors that they’ve known for years, a lot of them. They see their neighbors,” Leger said. “But everybody complied. People were really good.”
Leger, who owns Foothill Farm Starts and Perennials in Orange, said the farmers market held its final day in mid-October last year.
He mentioned the Orange Cultural Council gave his committee a $600 grant to pay musicians a small stipend to provide live music at the markets. The committee got a $900 grant for this year, and opening day is slated for May 13.
Annie Levine, now entering her third season as manager of the Great Falls Farmers Market in Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by how cooperative guests were regarding the guidelines Gov. Charlie Baker released last spring. She said masks were required, areas were cordoned off to encourage one-way foot traffic, and customers were not allowed to touch food until they had purchased it. Levine also said a friend of hers made cloth masks to hand out to people who may have forgotten to bring one.
She said the market, which grows in size every year, seemed to fill a socialization hole created by the pandemic. She people would stand socially distanced and catch up with each other, often complimenting people’s masks.
Reach Domenic Poli at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.