As consumers, pressed by food shortages and fearing the spread of COVID-19, turn to buying local produce, some Connecticut farmers are using the internet to connect remotely with local residents seeking safer ways to shop for groceries.
Cold Spring Farm in East Haddam has been offering food deliveries for several months, and recently started offering weekly food subscription packages that include meat and produce from the farm and other products like cheese, milk and honey from local vendors.
Long Table Farm in Lyme started an online version of its farm stand last week, allowing its customers to make contact-free produce purchases.
Long Table Farm
The Long Table Farm online farm stand opens Sunday night, customers have until 7 a.m. Tuesday to order, and then they can pick up their orders at the farm on Tuesday afternoon or on Wednesday.
The pickup is contact-free, farmer Baylee Drown said. There’s a cooler with produce bagged and labeled with each customer’s name, and a bottle of hand sanitizer nearby. It’s a way to get fresh produce without getting too close to anyone else.
“People can just come by and grab their stuff, they don’t have to see anyone,” Drown said. “Someone from a distance will just shout, ‘Thank you!’”
The new offer comes after Long Table began noticing that they weren’t seeing regular customers that they have sold to for years, Drown said. They figured many of them weren’t coming out because they were taking social distancing very seriously.
Drown and her husband Ryan Quinn didn’t want to start the online stand in the spring because they sold double their normal number of community-supported agriculture shares, and weren’t sure they could meet the demand right away. They increased their production plan for the summer, and were able to start the online stand last week.
Long Table Farm had also already been selling the majority of its CSA shares online, so the website was already set up for e-commerce and it only took a few hours for Drown to set up the online stand. They didn’t publicize the stand, wanting a chance to try it out first, but the stand still sold out by the end of Monday, she said.
“People responded very strongly that they liked it,” Drown said. “Some of those people turned out to be the people who had been missing from our markets because they don’t want to go and interface with other people right now.”
While the Long Table online farm stand was designed for COVID, it seems to be working well and could continue in the future if the demand remains, Drown said. They’re building a new barn this fall that will serve as a year-round farm stand. The online farm stand could fit alongside that, giving people the option to pick up produce or have the traditional shopping experience in the new barn, she said.
Cold Spring Farm
Like Long Table Farm, Cold Spring Farm in East Haddam had a framework for online sales for their community supported agriculture shares already, which helped the transition to delivery and subscription services in recent months.
Jess Stone, owner of Cold Spring Farm, said she’s been running a mix and match CSA program for 20 years, where customers have some choice over what goes in their basket. Stone first set up a website for Cold Spring about 10 years ago, and it was mainly a “landing page to say I existed,” she said.
Stone didn’t think it was important at the time, but she later realized the customers were looking for her online. Without much computer experience, she started to build up her site. With all the work she put into the site, she said it had to make money to be worthwhile.
“Even though I was hesitant because I’m super old-school – I’m all about the handshake deal – I realized the website needed to be an online store,” Stone said.
About six years ago, Stone set up her online store, allowing customers to purchase CSA shares with a credit card instead of chasing her down to pay with a check, she said.
Before COVID, Stone thought about a subscription service as a more convenient way for people to buy from her farm. Like the CSA food shares the farm sells, the subscriptions offer a regular package of produce.
The difference is the customer pays the price of the food share upfront, ahead of the growing season. It’s a useful investment that helps the farmer offset their costs for the upcoming season, but not everyone can afford one upfront payment.
“The subscription spreads out the expense, so it meets a whole other set of people who weren’t doing the CSA,” Stone said.
The emergence of COVID-19 pushed Cold Spring to develop a different food delivery option instead of starting the subscriptions. Healthy Farm Food Delivery gave consumers a “wheelbarrow” style delivery of what was available on the farm.
The delivery option gave Cold Spring more flexibility in what it sent to consumers as it adjusted to increased demand from people who felt safer buying from a local farm stand than a grocery store, Stone said.
At the peak, Cold Spring was making 60 to 80 deliveries a week as cars and people lined up to shop in the farm stand on site. Deliveries have dropped off to a manageable 30 to 50 a week as people have gotten more comfortable going outside.
“It was great because there was a need there and we met the need, but I know that ultimately customers would want a lot more predictability in what they were getting,” Stone said.
People have made a conscious effort to shop locally in the past few months. Some customers told Stone they went to her because they didn’t have another option to get food that felt safe. The subscriptions are one option for consumers who want convenience as the inclination to shop locally shifts from a need to a want.
“When they don’t need it, they just want it, are they still going to come and purchase and support it? Will there be a growth in people who will start getting into farming because there’s enough support that it allows them to build a local economy on that?” Stone questioned. “This farm can’t feed everybody.”
Still, Long Table and Cold Spring farms are growing on their own, both planning to put up new barns this year, and Stone says she has 10 years of projects planned. Both are optimistic that customers who came to them during COVID will stay with them, with Stone estimating that 30 percent would. Drown, from Long Table, said customers return for the quality of their food.
“It gets to the point where our produce is so good that they end up buying more fruits and vegetables than they did before they were our customers,” Drown said. “One of the greatest things about growing fresh, really carefully grown produce is it inspires people to eat more fruits and vegetables.”