The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions on business as usual have decimated our country’s restaurant industry, and this pain has trickled down to restaurant suppliers, including small and medium-sized farms. This is particularly true in the South, where many of our region’s most revered eating establishments have built their fame on a foundation of produce and other products sourced from local growers and makers, including folks like Justin Hill in Alabama, whose Eastaboga Bee Company supplies multiple Birmingham-area restaurants with the sweet liquid gold his bees distill from wildflower nectar.
Now, some of the restaurants Hill sells to have temporarily shut their doors, and others are pick-up only, and as such, have modified their menus. The shift has had a huge impact on his revenue. “Restaurants are doing less business overall, plus most have downsized what they’re offering,” he says. “Many just are not making their dishes that use honey right now, so my orders have plummeted.”
Despite that dreary news, Hill sounds upbeat as he explains his intention to keep keepin’ on. “The bees don’t know any different, and we’ve had a great spring; lots of rain means lots of things growing for them,” he says. “So, I’ll continue moving ahead for now. I’ll probably pull some more honey at the end of May. I’m real fortunate that the honey I harvest won’t go bad.”
He’s working hard to adapt to these trying times, but Hill’s not thinking solely of himself. “I have made a lot of calls to the restaurants I work with, but it’s not about orders now,” he says. “I’m just checking on my friends.”
Changes in farmers market operations and the cancellation of multiple festivals and events are also hurting agriculture, so we asked Hill and few other favorite farmers how they’ve been affected by COVID-19 and what people interested in supporting them can do to help.
Eastaboga Bee Company, Eastaboga, Alabama
Producing: Raw honey and honey/beeswax products like lip balm and lotions
Impact so far: Restaurant orders were the main piece of my business, and I’ve gone from having a stable of about 90 restaurants who continually buy from me to having just a handful of restaurants place orders since the pandemic started. I also sell at farmers markets and have online sales. The online sales have picked up, but that’s not really sustainable. And some markets have closed but others are doing pre-orders and drive through pickups. That’s actually kinda cool, because you go into the day knowing what kind of sales you had.
How to help: Ordering some honey online is the best way right now. When I’m selling to folks, I generally tell them, “I raised this on my farm. I hope you like it.” That’s the same thing I want people to know now. I’m still working hard to put a quality product on the market, and the same is true for other farms and farmers. I ever there was a time to buy local, this is it.
Jim and Julie Vaughn
Rocky Glade Farm, Eagleville, Tennessee
Growing & Raising: Winter vegetables, sweet potatoes, winter squash, garlic, potatoes, peppers, strawberries and fresh greens late August through June as well as grass-fed beef.
Impact so far: About 75-percent of our business was to restaurants, mostly in the Nashville area. We also sell to a food hub that collects orders from chefs via a website and then delivers to the restaurants. And we do a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with about 30 members. At first, it was like watching everything collapse in slow motion. One day this change, then next, a new social distancing regulation to stay open, then most restaurants just started to close one right after the other. The thing to note about Nashville restaurants in particular is that a tornado hit many of them on March 3. Quite a few were just re-opening at the time that COVID hit. For us personally and as a family it was really, really hard those first two weeks when everything was changing DAILY/HOURLY. You felt like you would make a new plan only to realize it was no longer viable. Now things seem to be a bit more calm. We are still making plans and changing them, but it’s tweaking things, not a total revamp every other day! We’ve adapted by asking our CSA members what they wanted and in response, we added in a “mini” box week between our regular every-other-week CSA pickup, and we extended our “winter” CSA into June. We are also moving some produce to regular families through a nearby dairy farm. And we’ve added an online ordering system.
How to help: Find a local farm to support. Many farms are trying to connect with regular people for several reasons. 1) We need to move the food we have been planning to grow for months before the virus hit. 2) We see that folks are worried about their food supply, or the safety of going to a grocery store, so farmers want to make sure people are fed and fed safely.
Len & Rachel Dickinson
Naturally Rad, Prattville, Alabama
Growing: A little bit of everything, from kale to corn to tomatoes to blueberries.
Impact so far: We normally sell through our CSA program, at local farmers markets and to local restaurants. We have been really fortunate in that our business has increased. We have added additional CSA shares to meet demand, and we are encouraging everyone to pay online for CSA shares. We are making sure all produce is packaged safely; all delivery bags are sanitized. We're including recipes with the shares too, so people can use the items they received from us to create a wonderful meal experience. We make soaps and lotions too and have seen those orders go way up.
How to help: Buy our products, and support the farmers and makers in your area.
Steve Whitmire and sons, Brad and Whit
Brasstown Beef, Brasstown, North Carolina
Raising: All natural, grass-fed beef
Impact so far: COVID-19 is hugely affecting us. Our quality had us about 90-percent dependent upon fine-dining restaurants and those that wanted very consistent, great tasting, all-natural grass-fed beef from animals not raised in confinement and with high animal welfare standards. After COVID-19, that has business ceased almost completely. Now, we are selling lots of ground beef to Ingles and Whole Foods; but that’s not very profitable for us. In the meantime, we have a very large buildup of our steak meats, which was the profitable part of our business. Some good news: Our two little retail stores at our plant in Franklin, North Carolina, and at our farm in Brasstown have both about doubled in sales.
How to help: To adapt, we have really amped up our e-commerce business and can use all the help we can get to increase sales through this avenue.
Josh and Beth Hornsby
Hornsby Farms, Auburn, Alabama
Growing & Raising & Producing: A wide range of produce, heritage-breed hogs, plus jellies and pickles
Impact so far: We normally sell to restaurants, and we have lost a lot of those sales. It’s gut-wrenching, but not just for us. Our restaurant community friends are suffering a lot, and we feel so much for them. We sell our jellies and pickles and other canned goods to a lot of specialty shops, and that business has pretty much died. We also do a lot of festivals, and all of those events have been cancelled, and this is really prime festival season, so that has been a big hit to our business as well. We sell produce baskets for customers too, and that’s the silver lining. Our basket sales have doubled. To help meet do all the extra deliveries for that, we’ve actually been able to hire a few people laid off from the local restaurant industry, so that’s been kinda cool.
How to help: If you’re in our area, sign up to get our baskets. Where ever you are, buy from your local farmers and food makers. I see it happening already. I see people seeking out local farms more than ever. I love that. People are trying to find local food again; they want to know where their food is coming from now and how it was grown. I also love folks asking questions about how to start their own gardens. We have always encouraged that, and now is a great time to do it and get your kids involved. We’re sharing our knowledge and answering questions to help folks get started. Also, our Nourish families are in need now more than ever. [Nourish is a nonprofit Beth co-founded to provide fresh produce to local food-insecure families.] We have increased what we are giving them and yet, we had to cancel the spring fundraising dinner. Any donations to that program would be greatly appreciated.
Steven & Christine Bailey
Kindred Farm, Santa Fe, Tennessee
Growing & Raising & Producing: Certified organic produce, including salanova lettuce, other greens, brassicas, tomatoes, cucumbers and produce used to make artisan jams, pickles, kimchi and more
Impact so far: We mainly sell directly to consumers through our onsite farm store, which we normally open every Saturday morning. We also host seasonal farm dinners. We had three farm-to-table dinners scheduled for spring, but they’ve all been postponed for now, so that’s a loss of income. We had planned to open our bigger farm store for the season to expand our products and have the ability to hold classes and smaller, intimate dinners inside the space, but that's been postponed as well because we can't safely gather customers in a small space on the farm. We had to scramble and figure out how to take online orders so our customers can come pick items up from coolers on Saturday mornings in a socially-distanced fashion. Instead of greeting familiar faces up close and taking time to linger and hear how they’re doing, we’re waving from across the produce field. But, it’s better than nothing, and hopefully very temporary, and we’re thankful to still be able to safely provide our community with fresh, healthy food.
How to help: Support your local farms! There are still shortages in grocery stores, and local farms need you more than ever. We're still working hard to grow healthy food for the community, and many of us are just making enough to cover the cost of our land, equipment and supplies.
FIND YOUR FARM
There are several great (and easy) ways to find and connect with farmers in your neck of the woods. Try localharvest.org and locallygrown.net. And a new site and service, findfamilyfarms.com, also offers a membership option that allows you to get discounts on produce and other food products grown and made by family farms.