As large-scale agriculture struggles, small farmers are getting creative to meet increased demand

Rachel Jessen/Little Village

Spring is a busy time for farmers. Typically their market and crop planning was done over winter, and they are now outside: seeding vegetable transplants, monitoring newborn lambs and piglets, preparing fields for planting and doing maintenance on machinery. But this spring, in addition to all of the usual demands, local direct-to-consumer producers are having to reimagine their marketing strategy because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Scott Swenson of the Kirkwood Small Business Development Center isn’t surprised to see these small farm businesses rising to the challenge. “An entrepreneur by nature is a problem-solver,” he said. “They are able to respond quickly to market changes.”

And it’s a good thing they can, because a wave of customers have come calling. As the seriousness of the pandemic set it and the potential for it to severely impact Iowa’s food supply became evident on store shelves, interest in locally grown food spiked, farmers report.

“There’s enormous demand,” said Liz Kolbe of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit that works with 4,500 farmers across the state. “I haven’t talked to any producer who said they’re not able to sell what they want to sell. The latest challenge is managing excessive demand.”

Many of these farms are not used to turning away customers.

“These are new stresses to replace the old stresses,” Kolbe said. “Farmers are holding back product to make sure they’re able to fill orders. They can’t replant fast enough. There’s not a weather challenge this year. There’s a health and safety challenge.”

Emma Johnson will be the first to tell you that COVID-19 is pushing her family’s farm into uncharted territory. That territory demands a fast-paced strategy with near-immediate evaluation and readjustment.

“If you had told me a year ago that all of our sales would be online, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Johnson, who operates Buffalo Ridge Orchard in Central City with her husband Marcus and her parents Vern and Mary. “We work hard to cultivate in-person, direct marketing, but e-commerce has been helpful for selling our Community Supported Agriculture shares.”

In a normal year, Buffalo Ridge Orchard sells produce to grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals as well as at five area farmers markets. They also just finished building an on-farm store. In the fall, when they begin harvesting their 52 varieties of apples, they offer CSA shares, where customers pay upfront to receive a weekly box of produce.

“From May to July, we usually sell 100 percent of our products at farmers markets,” Johnson said, “then from August to October — in addition to markets — we sell through CSA and wholesale.”

But COVID-19 has changed that. Recent guidance from the governor’s office will allow farmers markets to operate, but they will be dramatically different — vendors may sell only farm and produce products; no seating or entertainment is allowed — and many of the vendors are hedging their bets.

While questions about the pandemic swirled, Buffalo Ridge Orchard decided to try something new. In two weeks, they built an online store, implemented a new distribution model and launched two spring CSAs. Customers in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area are already receiving these weekly, no-contact boxes of produce.

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In addition, they saw an opportunity to collaborate with other local producers, who are also establishing new methods to sell their products in a socially distant world. The weekly shares include black beans from Grimm Family Farm, freshly baked bread from Local Crumb, cut flowers from Over the Moon Flowers and Farm, asparagus from Bluebird Farms and even vegetable-themed letterpress cards from Iron Leaf Press.

Johnson said, “Right now, at the beginning of May, we are on track to hit our normal sales mark and our June CSA shares are almost sold out. We are taking this one week at a time, but we keep growing the food.”

Lois Pavelka at her farm in 2015. — Little Village

Lois Pavelka is finding herself in a similar situation to market her farm’s meat products. Pavelka operates Pavelka’s Point Meats near Solon with her husband Bill Ellison and grandson Trevor. After decades of adapting to changing market conditions, Pavelka said the current situation is not entirely outside of her comfort zone.

“You’ve got to keep your knees bent,” she said. “I’ve been farming for over 50 years. I’ve gotten used to that idea. Things are always changing.”

Before COVID-19, Pavelka sold pork, lamb and beef at farmers markets and to restaurants in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. In late March, she launched a new no-contact pick-up at their farm. Now a weekly email is sent to customers who then respond with their orders and a time when they will come to the farm for pick-up. Pavelka puts each order in a small cooler on a folding table in their garage. Customers pull up the driveway, grab their food out of the cooler, leave their payment under the official Pavelka’s Point checkout — a rock paperweight from the driveway — and drive off.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differences between the United States’ two food systems — the large-scale, industrialized system versus the small-scale, community-based system — have become more apparent.

Currently, large vegetable farms are discarding produce that they are unable to sell because their intended market doesn’t exist or their supply chain has collapsed. Confinement livestock operations are having to euthanize market-ready animals or sell them below break-even prices because meat processing plants are closing due to virus outbreaks.

Meanwhile, many small-scale farms with short supply chains and direct connections with consumers are showing the resilience of their business model.

“Many small local farms are vertically integrated, from production through sales. It’s the farmer that is involved in all of those steps,” said Marcus Johnson of Buffalo Ridge Orchard. “Whereas in larger-scale production, you have somebody planting, somebody harvesting, somebody distributing. Any failure along the way causes problems in the whole system. By being a smaller operation, we can change and adapt to those things in real time, easier and quicker.”

Customers are finding that, when it comes to small farms, it’s not just about buying food. Those who make the drive on the gravel roads of rural Johnson County to visit Lois and Bill’s farm are having an altogether different experience than pushing carts through grocery aisles.

“People are enjoying the drive out here. When you come down the hill from the Ellison farm, it’s a beautiful view over the Cedar River,” Pavelka said. “The ewes and their babies are out dancing in the green pasture. It’s been an added plus to see the customers’ joy.”

There is an oft-cited rallying cry in large-scale agriculture, “get big or get out.” Emma Johnson sees the misguidedness of that statement playing out during this time of crisis.

“Efficiency shouldn’t be the driver,” she said. “‘Be diversified. Serve your community.’ That should be the motto that farmers strive for.”

Jake Kundert is the Food Systems Director at the local nonprofit, Iowa Valley RC&D.

Editor’s Note: The author works with many food system stakeholders in his role at the Iowa Valley RC&D, including those featured in this story.