Over the past month, changes in daily habits have necessitated a dramatic shift in the local food supply chain. Initially, grocery stores saw a surge of sales and shortages of both pantry staples and perishable foods as residents stocked up. Not long after, restrictions to restaurant operations and closures to schools and businesses furthered the need to cook more meals at home.
The impact on local farms has been profound. Some have seen an increase in demand, while others have experienced a steep drop-off, and all have had to make changes to their sales process to help customers access their food quickly and safely.
At Silver Queen Farm in Trumansburg, Gordie Gallup typically sells his produce exclusively to restaurants. At this time of year, that means wholesaling 50-pound bags of potatoes.
“When [restaurant] orders slowed down, we decided to offer them to the public at the same wholesale price,” Gallup said.
The response was immediate: in the first 10 days, they sold around 270 bags. After the initial wave, he also offered 20 pound bags to give customers another option.
“It’s amazing how word spread on social media - without this, I wouldn’t have an income right now,” Gallup said.
Switching customer bases so quickly presented a few challenges.
“Usually, I would have a pretty good idea of what I would be selling any given week - and know how much to wash and bag,” Gallup said. “With this, I was basically washing and bagging constantly - we sold in one week what we usually sell in a month.”
Since selling to wholesale accounts didn’t require an e-commerce site, Silver Queen Farm had to adapt on the fly. Gallup was taking orders by phone, offering residential deliveries daily and accepting payments by cash or check left on the porch.
Since then, demand from the public has decreased. Some restaurants have stabilized, and Silver Queen Farm is exploring other outlets.
“We are also selling bags to Tompkins Home Delivery, and Headwater Food Hub is picking up 80 five-pound bags to sell through their direct-to-consumer channels,” Gallup said.
Tompkins Home Delivery (tompkinshomedelivery.com) is a bulk food delivery project created specifically in response to the pandemic and run by the team at Luna Inspired Street Food. Headwater Food Hub (headwaterfoodhub.com) is a restaurant distributor that sustainably sources produce, meat, dairy and value-added products from a network of regional farmers. It has now opened its catalog to individuals and are offering community pick-up and home delivery.
While Gallup was pivoting to connect with new customers, Erica Frenay of Shelterbelt Farm in Brooktondale had built her business around direct-to-consumer relationships and found herself scrambling to meet an increase in demand.
“We opened our on-farm self-serve store three weeks early when we heard reports of meat shelves at grocery stores being empty,” she said.
Shelterbelt Farm sells lamb, beef, eggs, honey, ginger, cordials, syrups and balms. These are all products with a timeline of six to 18 months, which makes fulfilling an unexpected increase in demand during a traditionally slow time of year challenging. However, Frenay was clear that this wasn’t specific to small farms.
“Our massive global food distribution is built on just-in-time delivery and relies on a million working parts to deliver food where it’s needed,” she said. “While it is efficient, it is also fragile and can be devastated by any number of disruptions. Local food systems are critical for our food sovereignty, but they require local customers. From garden-scale to larger farms, we need thousands more involved in growing food to feed the people who live right here in Tompkins County so that our community is more resilient to future supply chain disruptions.”
Shelterbelt Farm’s products can be purchased either at their self-serve farm store or online. Online orders can be picked up at the farm or in downtown Ithaca through the recently established Press Bay Alley Food Transfer Hub.The Press Bay Alley Food Transfer Hub was launched on Thursday, March 26 by the team at Urban Core, spearheaded by Melissa Madden.
“We offer the space to receive from farmers each week and [we] take responsibility for distribution to customers on Thursdays [from] 3 to 7 p.m. I host a guide on our website that I update several times a week as new farms use it,” Madden said. “We are committed to keeping food flowing through our community with an emphasis on health, safety and consistent access.”
Madden utilizes the empty storefront at 110-1 W. Green St. and the commercial scale freezer and cooler to store orders. The central location is highly walkable and parking directly out front allows for easy curbside pickup.
The participating vendors may vary each week and have included produce and livestock farms, cideries, breweries, cheesemakers, soapmakers and other specialty products such as herbs, coffee, hot sauce and pickles.
“This is a time for extreme inclusiveness,” Madden said. “If a farm vendor can run an online store and use the communication tools I have set up, they are currently welcome.”
More information can be found at pressbayalley.com.
Linking local residents with local food and supporting a strong local food system is at the core of the Ithaca Farmers Market’s mission statement, so maintaining that connection during a time of increased demand was a high priority for market organizers. While both grocery stores and farmers markets are designated as essential businesses, farmers markets across the state have struggled with negative public perception.
“We’ve implemented a lot of changes to create a safer atmosphere - including changing our messaging,” said Marketing Manager Laura Gallup. “We usually describe the market as a place to gather, socialize, eat and spend an afternoon - but now it’s a place to get in, shop and go.”
To facilitate an efficient and safe shopping experience, the Ithaca Farmers Market has developed a long list of guidelines for customers and vendors.
These include requesting each household only send one person to shop, eliminating self-service of products so customers only touch items after they have purchased them and encouraging preordering and prepayment from vendors who offer it.
“We have been in constant contact with the Tompkins County Health Department - first to see if the market could still happen and then to follow their guidelines,” Laura said. “Representatives from TCHD have been to market to check it out while it’s happening and have given us the green light to continue.”
Recent markets have actually been much different than how a typical April market might look, said Executive Director Becca Rimmel, noting that the pavilion is not crowded and patrons are able to maintain six-foot distance while shopping.
“We have 88 booths, and if the weather is nice in April, they’re usually all full,” Laura said.
To resolve this, they limited the number of vendors to 40.
“We’ve tried to keep a diverse product mix so that customers can find most of the groceries they need, but inevitably, there are some vendors stuck at home with no good way to sell their products,” Laura said.
Since craft vendors are not categorized as essential business, they’re not allowed to attend the market, but many are still selling their goods online. Prepared food vendors have been in attendance, but only with food that is packaged or frozen and meant to be eaten off site.
“Our rule against hot prepared food was set by the market – and it’s above and beyond what the health department is requiring of us,” Rimmel said.
Laura praised the markets’ businesses for their resourcefulness.
“A lot of our vendors are thinking outside the box,” she said. “They’re creating online stores, offering pickup and delivery services, creating subscriptions and CSAs, teaming up with other vendors and generally adapting to what consumers need. We have lifted our rule against selling goods for other vendors so that some of our more vulnerable vendors can stay home but still earn money.”
Markets are currently planned every Saturday in April from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Steamboat Landing outdoor pavilion at 545 Third St. in Ithaca, with more information on May coming soon. To help customers plan ahead, the website and social media are updated on market mornings to reflect vendors who are currently attending.
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