CORONAVIRUS

How small farm operations are changing business models to adapt to the coronavirus

Donna Warhover walks behind one of her high tunnels April 18 at Morning Glory Farm in Mount Vernon. Warhover has started
Donna Warhover walks behind one of her high tunnels April 18 at Morning Glory Farm in Mount Vernon. Warhover has started selling directly to consumers.
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When Andrew Hoffman headed into the woods Monday in search of wild ramps to forage, he wasn’t exactly sure where they would end up.

Usually, these ramps — a species of wild onion — would be bound for local restaurant tables, as are much of the products from Hoffman Farm and Forage, the small farm he and Sarah Hoffman run near Mount Vernon. But these days, with their doors closed to dine-in customers to fight the spread of the coronavirus, the chefs he normally works with are focused less on concocting specialty entrees to feature something like ramps and more on simply staying afloat.

So, like many small farmers, Hoffman is trying to figure out a new way of doing business on the fly. The farm’s two normal revenue streams are direct sales to restaurants and the Downtown Cedar Rapids Farmers Market. With the market start date delayed and restaurants struggling, Hoffman decided to try something new: selling his produce directly to consumers.

He posted on Facebook and soon had replies from people eager to buy up his supply of ramps.

“We’ve had a pretty solid group of people reaching out to us who are excited about them,” he said. “Door-to-door sales and deliveries have never really been our business model, so it’s neat to see people be excited about it.”

The Hoffmans have never had a website other than a Facebook page and never accepted credit card payments, so they’re busy researching those options as they look for ways to diversify their farm’s income.

“A lot of our produce is chef-oriented, to the point we meet with chefs and go through seed catalogs with them and ask what do you want us to grow this year,” he said. “So now we’re pretty much just trying to figure out every revenue opportunity we avoided in the past.”

Donna Warhover, who owns Morning Glory farm in Mount Vernon, is doing the same. One of her biggest regular clients is Cornell College. When they sent students home, she was left with a large crop of greens, radishes and other early spring produce she planted in high tunnels specifically for Cornell’s kitchens.

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She also owns a food truck that she grows produce for, but events it would have attended have been canceled or postponed. So like Hoffman, she decided to try a direct-to consumer sales approach. She has twice posted on Facebook, offering a $20 box of spring produce, available for contactless pickup on the farm. Both times she sold out quickly.

With that success, she’s looking at increasing what she offers in her online store and reaching out to other local producers to partner on sales, with pickup at her farm.

“This is uncharted territory; we’re just going to play it one day at a time,” she said. “But I think all the work we’ve had to do to revamp our business models will not be in vain. I think we will benefit in the long run.”

She normally sells at the Iowa City Farmers Market, but she isn’t sure if she will participate in the new online shopping option. She has increased how many CSA — community supported agriculture — shares she offers and anticipates those selling out.

CSAs are like a farm membership — customers pay an upfront fee and receive a weekly box of produce directly from the farm throughout the growing season.

Molly Schintler of Echollective Farm in Mechanicsville said interest in CSAs has exploded this year. The farm increased its CSA program from 60 to 170 shares.

“We were able to shift some things that would be going to farmers markets or restaurants into CSAs. We could have always been doing more CSAs, but there has never been interest,” she said.

There is this year. Even with almost triple shares, they quickly sold out, and people are still asking to sign up.

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Schintler attributes the growth to people worrying about food chains, as meat processing plants shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks and grocery store shelves sometimes being empty of the products they are looking for.

“I do think there’s an unusual uptick in people who have never been very interested in local food who have now become interested in having access (to) local food and being connected to a local farm and knowing where their food is coming from,” she said.

She said the last few weeks have been hectic as she and her farm partner, Derek Roller, juggle home schooling, spring planting and pivoting their business model.

“But it’s really cool to feel that while this awful pandemic is happening, people more than ever seem to really want to support local and smaller businesses and people whose mission is maybe aligned with their values,” she said.

She hopes that support continues.

“Farmers in the local food system have needed to feel this show of support for a long time,” she said.

Lois Pavelka of Pavelka’s Point Meats said adapting her business model has turned into a pleasant surprise.

The primary places she sells lamb and pork meat from the animals she and Bill Ellison raise on their farm between Mount Vernon and Solon have been the Iowa City Farmers Market and the Johnson County Winter Market. Worried about the market season, longtime customers began reaching out, asking if they could buy from her directly. She started sending out when meat was available and people would pickup their order on the farm, without contact.

“It’s just been marvelous. I’ve been busy,” she said. “I’m almost 80, so this has really worked for me, rather than driving into town and trying to do drop-offs. I’ve been surprised but really pleased. I think it’s because I have that relationship with people. I have a customer base that knows me.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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