“Our customers are our dear friends,” Clay says. “We put our best products in their hands and they do their best work to make us look good. We have years and years of investment in developing those relationships. To see that blown to pieces, emotionally, it hurts.”
The Trainums sell their high-end, heritage breed pork and beef to chefs at top D.C. restaurants, including The Dabney, Tail Up Goat, 2 Amys, andA Rake’s Progress. But when restaurants closed or drastically reduced their operations to take-out and delivery in mid-March, 95 percent of Autumn Olive Farms’ business evaporated within 36 hours.
“We don’t have a chance to even grieve,” Clay says. “It just sucks. We haven’t even been able to get up with each other to say, ‘How are you doing?’ They’re scrambling to survive and we’re scrambling to survive.”
Like other farmers whose names have been scrawled across menus at farm-to-table restaurants throughout the region for years, the Trainums have had to work around the clock to support themselves, secure the future of their business, and ensure products don’t go to waste. Right now, they’re focused on selling products directly to the public. In 19 days, Autumn Olive Farm built an online retail store and began selling to non-restaurant customers for the first time. Purchasers can retrieve orders at four locations in central Virginia. If demand increases, the Autumn Olive team will expand into the District.
According to farmers, the public has answered their call. Consumers are going straight to the source as they seek alternatives to sold-out, over-crowded supermarkets, believing that the less hands that touch ingredients, the better. By developing direct-sales strategies, farmers are forging the same tight bonds with local residents that they’ve cultivated over the years with chefs. Farmers hope this reinvigorated appreciation for their craft and livelihoods lasts well beyond the pandemic.
Mary Ellen Taylor, better known as “the lettuce lady,” has been growing greens for 20 years. Her operation, Endless Summer Harvest, is located in Purcellville, Virginia. Despite the fact that restaurant sales typically account for 60 percent of her business, Taylor says her company hasn’t taken a hit. Restaurants serving to-go meals are still buying from her, especially as some larger purveyors have limited their distribution schedules.
In addition to selling lettuce and other greens to restaurants, Endless Summer Harvest has year-round booths at the FRESHFARM Dupont Circle Marketand the Falls Church Farmers Market. Farmers markets were considered essential businesses in the District until Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an order Wednesday evening. Now markets must apply for a waiver to reopen by sharing a social distancing plan with the city. Falls Church instituted restrictions to try to slow the spread of the virus, such as limiting sales to pre-orders and controlling how many customers enter at a time.
“Customers are so appreciative,” Taylor says. “They thank us two and three times for continuing to produce. The relationship between the customer and farmer has always been symbiotic, but right now it is so important, the mutual appreciation.”
Taylor attributes some of her success to social media. About two months ago she decided 2020 was the year she would tap two staff members to create Facebook and Instagram accounts for the farm. “Had we not done that, we’d be behind the curve,” she says. “Our business has absolutely increased.”
Moon Valley Farm in Woodsboro, Maryland, has also tweaked its operations to get its produce into the hands of consumers while restaurants are dormant. Owner Emma Jagoz typically operates a CSA from May through December. From January through April, she only sells to restaurants, including The Dabney, Maydan, and Rooster & Owl. To stay viable, Moon Valley Farm had to launch its CSA program early this year and sweeten the deal by offering delivery for the first time. They make drops in D.C., Bethesda, Baltimore, and beyond.
“You could say I lost 100 percent of my business at this moment, but we just delivered 300 shares this week, which financially more or less makes up for that,” Jagoz says. “But in a few weeks we’re supposed to have our CSA memberships, plus restaurant sales. I’m not sure how that’s going to look.”
The public can either sign up for a seasonal CSA or place one-time delivery orders through the farm’s website. Three weeks in, Jagoz is encouraged. “Our CSA members and the public have been extremely supportive of us—we’re home delivering like crazy,” she says. Instead of laying off workers, Jagoz has increased some of her employees’ hours.
She also found a way to loop in niche growers in the region. In addition to selling and delivering the early spring crops available from her farm, Jagoz sells her colleagues’ gourmet mushrooms, dry beans, grains, honey, and fruit and forwards them any money she receives from their products. Should city dwellers want to try their hand at growing their own food, Moon Valley Farm will also deliver vegetable transplants ready to go into the ground.
Jagoz recognizes that some Washingtonians are amending their spending habits simply because grocery stores are out of produce, but she hopes the benefits of buying local will stick. “People are seeing that we take a lot of pride and care in our food and the chain is really short and that’s benefiting the public,” she says.
“If there’s one thing that this whole virus has shown us, it’s that our food system is so fragile,” says Erik Schlener, founder of Root and Marrow Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. “I’ve had countless emails and calls from people looking to buy from me. The stories are crazy. They’ll say, ‘My dad has diabetes and can’t have contact with anybody and would like to order from you.’ At most at my farm, produce is touched by two people. It’s the most secure way of getting food and there’s a lot of power in that.”
Schlener started his farm in 2018 with just $400 in savings and ramped up operations to the point where he could finally start selling to restaurants over the past couple of years. “Last year over 50 percent of our sales were from restaurants,” he says. “We were hoping to double that this year.”
Some of his would-be clients include newcomers Hanumanh, Albi, Nina May, and Oyster Oyster. The latter is a plant-based restaurant that should have opened by now, but COVID-19 stalled all progress. Schlener spent the past year developing a close relationship with Oyster Oyster Executive Chef Rob Rubba. The pair organized a farm dinner last summer to give diners a sneak preview of what a menu can look like when farmers and chefs collaborate.
“For the past three weeks I’ve been pivoting as fast as I can to keep runway in front of me,” Schlener says. “I’ve switched to direct-to-consumer harvest club memberships and have been trying to get as many people signed up as possible. By May, we’ll start delivering them.”
While he says the CSA program hasn’t covered lost sales, Schlener believes it will keep the farm going for the foreseeable future. Right now his target market is Loudoun County, but come late spring he’ll look for a D.C. restaurant to pair up with. All-Purpose Pizzeria has done something similar and currently serves as a pick-up point for Earth N Eats farm.
The changes Schlener’s made on the farm have less to do with volume, and more to do with crop selection. He knows he’d have a harder time selling edible flowers to the public than something more familiar and substantive. Not many home cooks are focused on garnishes, especially at this point in time.
That said, consumers’ gameness to experiment with produce grown with chefs in mind or proteins packaged in quantities better suited for a restaurant crowd than a nuclear family or cluster of roommates quarantining together has surprised two farms.
Unlike Autumn Olive Farms, Spring House Farm in Hamilton, Virginia, was already set up for retail when COVID-19 clobbered the region’s restaurants. Founders Andrew and Liz Crush operate a brick-and-mortar store at the farm, sell out of Crooked Run Brewery in Sterling, Virginia, and offer popular cuts of pork, goat, chicken, and lamb as well as pork bones, chicken feet, and lamb hearts in their online store. Spring House will deliver items purchased through the online store to D.C. zip codes if an order exceeds $300.
Thanks to help from staff, Spring House Farm has been able to meet demand. “We had two days where we ran out of milk and two days we were out of eggs,” Andrew says. “But meat and all of the other stuff we were able to keep stocked. Massive grocery stores with these fancy distribution systems were not able to keep up. And we were blowing through the product pretty fast.”
At one point they sold out of their one-pound packs of grass-fed ground beef, so Andrew turned to the five- and 10-pound blocks of ground beef they typically sell to restaurants and hoped the public would purchase them. They did.
But that doesn’t mean people should always buy in bulk. “It’s great when we take down 60 to 80 dozens of eggs to our stores and they get sold in a day, but when you see people take eight dozen eggs or 10 jugs of milk, you know they’re not going to use all that and someone else is going to have to go without,” he says.
Jon Shaw of Karma Farm sells specialty products exclusively to restaurants, making his newly formed CSA program an unusual one. “We don’t really do any commodity things like onions or potatoes,” Shaw explains. “They’re going to get a lot of celtuce, Chinese broccoli, and edible flowers. Some people will appreciate it. Others will say, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’”
Four years ago, Shaw and his wife, Gay, decided to solely specialize in restaurants. They sell to clients including Tail Up Goat, Bad Saint, Reverie, The Dabney, Bresca, Hazel, and A Rake’s Progress. “What happened three weeks ago is the vast majority of our customers shut down,” Jon says. “We went back to our CSA list and sent out emails to all of the customers that we had four or five years ago. We’re sold out. It’s crazy.”
The timing of COVID-19 could have been worse, according to Shaw. Their revenue is only down 20 to 25 percent because they can’t offload some specialty produce, but they’re still able to sell upward of 70 shares per week. Had this happened at the end of June, Shaw says they would have needed to sell 150 shares per week to make ends meet. He’s doubtful demand would rise to that level. “We’d have a lot of tomatoes that are rotting.”
“We’re going to survive and live to fight another day,” Shaw insists. “Hopefully the restaurants will come back.”