When COVID-19 shut down social gatherings across the state, Linley Dixon with Adobe House Farm knew she had to do something differently. Farmers markets made up a majority of the farm’s sales, and market sales to restaurants went down.
Like many other farms in the area, Dixon started selling directly to customers online. By the middle of June, 150 families were ordering produce online and picking it up directly from Adobe House Farm.
New networks between Southwest Colorado farmers, markets and restaurants, as well as agile digital marketplaces, are springing up to create a critical lifeline for the struggling industry.
For example, Dixon has also started using Roll, an electric bike rental system, to deliver boxes of produce to people’s doors.
That’s why, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Adobe House Farm’s sales increased.
“Local farms are able to adjust to where people are comfortable,” Dixon said, noting many people were hesitant to go to a grocery store during the statewide shutdown order.
The public health crisis has awakened people to the reality that when there is a disruption like a pandemic or a natural disaster, and trucks can’t deliver food, it’s “not so devastating if food is sourced locally,” Dixon said.
Building communities through foodFamily farms across the country have been hit hard by the impact of COVID-19 on their markets, but in Durango, where local products have received immense community support, demand for fresh produce has surged over the past couple of months.
Tyler Hoyt, co-owner of Green Table Farm in Mancos, also sold most of his produce through farmers markets. He had a delivery system before the pandemic, but it did not make up a large portion of the sales.
When Gov. Jared Polis instituted his “Stay at Home” order across Colorado in late March, Green Table Farm’s delivery sales skyrocketed, increasing by 400%.
“We ran out of stuff to sell people,” Hoyt said.
He attributes the success to the fact that people in the area wanted delivery service – they didn’t want to go to grocery stores.
“Normally, this is a lean season before the farmers markets, but we were absolutely making money this year,” Hoyt said.
He is also on the farmers market board in Durango and said that even with social-distancing restrictions, the market is doing as well as it would in a normal year, if not better.
The millennial age group is busy on the weekends, Hoyt said, and they like the convenience of a Community Supported Agriculture system or a delivery system.
“A lot of the market is going to shift toward that,” Hoyt said.
CSA is a fast-growing part of the local seasonal food market. A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” of his or her local produce to the public. Interested consumers buy a membership or subscription and receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the season.
In other words, the CSA model is built on relationships in the community, and many local farmers attribute their success during COVID-19 to those partnerships.
Hoyt said he prefers interacting with people at the farmers market booth and letting people pick which items they want, though farmers markets are currently allowing only farmers to touch produce with gloves.
“Farming is a tough business with COVID, fire, drought and so many things you don’t have control over,” Hoyt said. But local farms are flexible enough to adapt and make changes, Hoyt said.
Boardroom decisions that funnel down to hardworking contract farmers aren’t adaptive enough, which is why corporate-run farms collapse, Hoyt said.
Yet not all local farmers have felt the boost. Sheila Payne with Mocking Crow Farms said her farm is still relatively new, but she relies almost entirely on word-of-mouth and farmers markets, which is difficult during a pandemic.
At the same time, Payne’s sales to local residents have remained consistent.
Farms built to last Max Fields and James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm sold out of their winter crop of carrots in March. The two had to set some aside for farmers markets in town.
When restaurants shifted to takeout and delivery service, local relationships and partnerships helped keep Fields to Plate profitable during the pandemic.
Restaurants like Zia Taqueria and El Moro were “so adaptive to everything we were doing,” Fields said. The farm had an abundant number of microgreens, so El Moro picked them up again for their menu. This system supports local farms and maintains an uninterrupted food supply chain for restaurants.
With a farm that grows a diverse number of crops, “if one thing flops, you have plan C, D, E, F or G,” Fields said, whereas a large farm that grows only one type of crop is not as flexible for different sales avenues or options.
More people in the area started cooking at home when restaurants closed, so local farms became a resource for nutritious food when public health became the community’s focus, said Becca James with The James Ranch.
The lesson to learn from meatpacking facilities forced to closed is that a “centralized food system leads to an insecure food system,” James said.
James and other local farmers and ranchers say the state needs a paradigm shift for farms and ranches to remain viable in the face of multiplying disasters to come – not only pandemics, but fires, drought and other symptoms of climate change.
“Having a diverse farm is so key to weathering the storm,” Fields said. Subsidizing farms to mass-produce crops that are exported out of the country is not a sustainable business model, Fields said.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of the food system in the United States, Fields said, is an opportunity to start talking about positive change.