Valley Bounty: Old Friends Farm
Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 21, 2021
By Jacob Nelson
FOR THE GAZETTE
For over a year, there’s been a new way to buy local food from Old Friends Farm in Amherst. At the onset of the pandemic, they were among the local farms that launched contactless online ordering and curbside pickup — of their own products as well as those of other growers and makers in the region.
As owner Casey Steinberg explains, they were driven to create this new platform by the simplest of farming desires: getting food to people. Last April, that wasn’t easy.
“We didn’t know what would happen to our markets,” Steinberg recalls. “Wholesale was up in the air, restaurants were suffering, farmers markets didn’t know if they were opening at that point — and even if they did, we didn’t know if people would come.”
“We had to make a decision based on a lot of questions,” Steinberg says, “but one thing we knew was that we could grow food with our committed team of employees, and we could provide an outlet to other regional producers to move their food as well.”
This was a big shift for Old Friends Farm. Founded in 2003, the farm grows certified organic produce, flowers, and specialty crops on 28 acres. They’re well known for their salad greens, and as being one of the first farms in New England growing ginger and turmeric on a large scale. The latter they use to create a wide variety of syrups, infused honey, teas and other specialty goods.
Usually, they sell to local retailers including River Valley Co-op, Atlas Farm Store and State Street Fruit Store, as well as restaurants. Regional distributors carry their products north to Vermont, south to New York City, and across the width of Massachusetts.
The Amherst Farmers’ Market is an important outlet for them as well. “We’ve seen some customers there face to face for a long time,” Steinberg says. “Those relationships are very important to us. We’re only a mile from the market, so you can’t get more local than that.”
When the pandemic jeopardized those sales outlets, Steinberg and business partner Missy Bahret took it into their own hands to provide for their customers and employees.
“Many of our employees have been here for years,” Steinberg explains. “They are the farm’s backbone, and we needed an income stream to keep them employed.”
By creating their own online store and ordering system, they ensured they wouldn’t have to rely on less predictable outlets. “We knew if customers took to it, we could uphold our end of the commitment,” he says.
By designing their system around online ordering for curbside pickup, they made it contactless and as pandemic-proof as possible. “We wanted to provide a way for customers to get local food without visiting an environment where they didn’t feel safe,” he explains.
Then, they opened the doors to other growers and producers to take part.
“We wanted to ensure a comprehensive shopping experience for people,” Steinberg says. So, produce, dairy, meat, eggs, baked goods, herbs, pantry products and more from other regional producers were added to round out Old Friends Farm’s offerings.
Any outside products they carry must align with their philosophy. “We’re not asking folks to do anything differently for us,” Steinberg maintains, “but we do have certain criteria. Products should be grown organically or responsibly, and either grown in our region or made using regionally grown ingredients. Anything else wouldn’t fit with our sense of integrity.”
For customers, shopping on the online store has been made as simple as possible. The farm’s website (www.oldfriendsfarm.com) provides directions, and staff can be contacted to help if needed. Orders can be placed any time Friday through Sunday for pick up on Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. at the farm on South Pleasant Street.
Says Steinberg, “Most customers are local — within 30 minutes of Amherst — though a few drive from Boston, Springfield or the Berkshires. Some use our online store to do all of their shopping, but most use it to supplement, and either is great.”
The online store also accepts payment through SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and HIP (the state Healthy Incentives Program). HIP offers rebates for users that spend their SNAP dollars on produce from participating local farms — up to $80 a month depending on family size. Families get free produce, and farms benefit from more money entering the local food economy.
“The pandemic wasn’t going to make food access any easier,” Steinberg says, “and we were already set up to accept SNAP and HIP at farmers’ markets. It just made sense to continue that with this new sales outlet.”
Old Friends Farm’s new platform is certainly not the only game in town. Steinberg cites Atlas Farm Store, Simple Gifts Farm, the Sunderland Farm Collaborative (spearheaded by Kitchen Garden Farm) and Mass Food Delivery (created by Mycoterra Farm) as examples of other pandemic-inspired online marketplaces that have established themselves in the local food economy. Information about these and other online ordering options for local food can be found on CISA’s website at www.buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
All these farms drastically shifted their sales operations to offer customers a new way to buy local food. “Really it’s like creating a whole separate business,” Steinberg says, noting that they recently hired a dedicated staff person for their online store.
As the pandemic fades, so do the factors that encouraged people to find food in new ways and inspired these new shopping platforms. But until proved otherwise, Old Friends Farm will continue to bet on customers’ enthusiasm to keep ordering local and online.
“This pandemic has been really, really hard,” Steinberg says, “but some beautiful things have come of it. The increased commitment to buying local in all these different avenues, I hope it stays.”
“We don’t have plans to close curbside ordering. We have producers lined up to grow for it and we’re firing on all cylinders,” he says.
“The product will be there, it’s just a matter of if people show up for it.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).