With much of the country staying home for fear of catching or spreading the coronavirus, farmers have had to think on their feet to get food to hungry customers.
“Our world has turned completely upside down,” said Steve Landers, owner of Covered-L Farm in Boone County, Missouri.
Covered-L is a grass-fed beef farm that, until the virus took hold of the country, did most of its business by selling meat to small restaurants in Columbia, Missouri. Most of the rest of its business came from natural food markets in Columbia, though a little also came from selling the meat from whole or half cows to residential customers.
But stay-at-home orders have temporarily closed most of the restaurants the farm was dealing with. Meanwhile, customers are buying more of his meat from the natural-food markets and a couple of traditional grocery stores.
“People are discovering that, Jiminy Cricket, they can actually cook,” he said.
While the sales to restaurants have dwindled, sales to stores have about doubled. He hasn’t had the chance to run the numbers yet, but he believes he is close to making the same amount of money that he made before the pandemic.
Yet he is facing another problem. His farm uses Swiss Meat and Sausage Co. in Hermann to process his beef, and, every other week, that company would drive a truckload of processed meat to Columbia, where Landers would pick up his order.
Swiss Meat has stopped those deliveries, so Landers has to drive down to Hermann and back, an hour and a half each way, to pick up his meat for delivery in mid-Missouri.
Landers also makes meat deliveries every other month to the St. Louis area, in Manchester and in Fenton. Residential customers order in advance online or by phone, and he drives to a specific location for a couple of hours to give them their meat.
This drop-off method of doing business has become an increasingly popular way to distribute food straight from small farms in this time of fear and disease — especially when the immediate fate of farmers markets is in doubt, though they are considered essential businesses and can open.
Sam Wiseman has adopted drop-offs for her Sunflower Savannah Farm in Franklin County. She has had drop-offs of her chicken and duck eggs and tomatillo salsa at Hixson Middle School in Webster Groves for each of the past few Sundays.
Sunflower Savannah is an all-natural, non-GMO specialty-crop farm — “We do some heirloom vegetables, weird stuff that a lot of people don’t grow,” Wiseman said. She is counting on the scarcity of the crops she grows and the appeal of the natural growing methods to bring more customers to the drop-offs as more produce comes into season.
“We’re just trying to make it easy for people to get fresh, clean food and not worry about what is in the grocery store for fresh everyday meals,” she said.
Good Life Growing, an urban farm in St. Louis, has, like Covered-L Farm, seen a complete turnaround in its business model from almost exclusively selling to restaurants to almost exclusively selling through grocery stores.
The difference is that Good Life Growing runs its own grocery store, Old North Provisions in north city. Co-founder and acting CEO James Forbes said the organization is not making as much money with the grocery-store sales as it did with the sales to restaurants, but he credits the group’s collective foresight for keeping things from being worse.
“We had a real come-to-Jesus moment when we realized that if we don’t do something new, in six months we’ll have to lay people off,” he said.
The store now offers at-home delivery and personal shopping.
Good Life Growing is a social enterprise, Forbes said, with a mission to promote and teach people how to become involved in urban farming.
“We’re able to ensure that our food is safer, because we know where our food is coming from. We do ensure that we’re inspecting everything at the manager level. We make sure everyone constantly washes their hands and wears masks.
“We’re overdoing it so we don’t regret not going that extra mile later,” Forbes said.
Other natural-foods grocery stores have also seen an uptick in business during the time of coronavirus.
City Greens Market is a nonprofit organization in the Grove district that offers goods, often natural or organic, at low prices. For the duration of the stay-at-home lockdown, it is only taking online orders, which the staff fills and bags and brings out to the customers on the patio.
“We’ve had really great reviews. People are so happy that we are able to remain open and provide healthy and inexpensive food to our community,” said market manager Liz Essman.
But the new method of shopping has become a victim of its own success. The number of people ordering has actually caused a problem because it takes more employees to pack the orders than it does to staff the store while people shop, she said.
In the interest of saving time and effort, the store has also had to limit some bulk items, such as rice. And instead of offering three different kinds of carrots, it now only offers one.
“Not everyone has options to find a grocery store outside of the community. We want to be here for people who don’t have that flexibility to go out of the community for shopping, and I think our members understand that,” Essman said.
Keeping track of what many of the region’s farmers, independent grocery stores and farmers markets are doing to get food to consumers is Known & Grown STL, a project of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment on behalf of the St Louis Food Policy Coalition.
This project promotes “farmers who are using environmentally responsible practices within 150 miles of St. Louis,” according to manager Jenn DeRose. It has created a spreadsheet at knownandgrownstl.org that lists dozens of farms, farmers markets and natural-food grocery stores and shows how they are getting their food to consumers, whether through deliveries, drop-off, pick-ups or other means.
“People are rallying around local producers and growers,” DeRose said.