Business owners worldwide have had to get pretty creative in order to survive the global coronavirus pandemic. With so many spring retail, restaurant and bar closures—along with the patchwork of shelter-in-place orders—came a cascade of economic and social effects.
And, while some farmers are really struggling, others have managed to thrive.
How well your own farm weathers the COVID-19 pandemic depends a lot on your marketing efforts in general. Your ability to pivot as needed also matters. In part, that means staying in touch with and finding new ways to serve your existing customers.
But you can also make hay with the wave of new customers who are increasingly cooking and eating at home.
Strength in Numbers
Mariana Leung founded Wicked Finch Farm in Pawling, New York. It’s an Airbnb getaway destination and producer of small-batch treats such as “boozy jam” and “tipsy marshmallows.”
Although Leung usually sells her specialty goods in retailers across the U.S., many of these are now closed. So, she and other area farms are pooling their marketing resources and working together to stay solvent through online pop-up shops.
“The farmer I am working with—Freville Farm—she’s quite savvy in marketing and all that,” Leung says. “She has several farmers and makers with a section on her website right now. There’s a cut-off time for [customers to place their orders] and there’s enough time for people to make things.”
Then, customers come during appointed time slots to claim their purchases, which are placed directly into their cars’ trunks.
Do you want to start a pop-up shop where you are? “If it’s a community of farmers, pick the one that’s the most prolific at social media and publicity,” Leung says. “Maybe that’s the central place to make your pop-up, and it’s on their website.”
You could also use social media avenues such as Facebook or Instagram in a similar way.
“That’s probably the easiest way to promote yourself—especially if you are doing things that are food or tactile or that are visual,” she adds. “And [the group of farmers involved] kind of promotes that to the central page of the person who is holding the pop-up.”
“Right now, a farm could basically put up a Google form and take orders over email, and that’s probably going to be fine,” says Simon Huntley, CEO and founder of Harvie, an online platform that facilitates direct-to-consumer produce sales for small and medium-sized farms across North America.
“If farms are selling to restaurants or to wholesale clients, then they are more at the mercy of what the market is going to give them,” Huntley says. “Some of those farms are in big trouble. They’re having to make really big shifts to their business models if they are going to stay afloat at all.”
These days, a farm that is set up to sell direct to consumers is well-positioned to take advantage of the unprecedented demand for local produce created by the pandemic.
“Probably something like half the food was going through restaurants and large institutions,” Huntley says. “Now it’s all going through people’s home kitchens. Even at a macro level, we are having to shift how the food goes through our food system and how we get it to people.”
New Customers, New Habits
During the pandemic, Huntley has seen a 200 percent increase in sales of farm products. “I had already been calling 2020 the ‘Year of Home Delivery.’ This was already happening, but, now, it’s just like 100 times what it was before,” he says.
Harvie sent out a promotional email to a few hundred people offering home-delivered farm boxes. He received so many orders that the company had to shut down online sign-ups temporarily.
“We’re seeing people who’ve never bought local food, people who never go to farmers markets, people who’ve never been part of a CSA—now they want to do it. This is the moment to grab these people and get their habits formed.”
“If you’re not selling direct to consumer right now, in some ways it’s going to be hard to have a business,” Huntley says. As such, many farms that used to sell at in-person farmers markets have pivoted to sell via prepaid, drive-through farmers markets.
“If the transaction happens online, the farm can have everything preboxed when the customer gets there. They can just pick it up and go,” he says. “Then it’s basically the lowest contact that can be done right now.”
Local home delivery might be another option to offer. If you already have a customer email list you periodically use, you can leverage that, along with social media posts, to gauge existing and new customer demand for pop-up shops, CSAs, home delivery and similar services.
When you’re ready to implement new, low-contact, direct-to-consumer channels, use email, Facebook, Instagram and earned media (publicity gained through promotional efforts other than paid advertising) to spread the word.
And, Huntley advises: “Think about not only what you need for right now, but also what’s going to be a sustainable business model for you going forward.”
One way to be forward-thinking? “Be community-minded,” Leung says. “Be kind and thoughtful. If there are people who owe you money, let it slide a little bit.”
A farm can engender a lot of public goodwill while doing good during the pandemic. For her part, Leung has broken out her sewing machine. “Using fabrics that I had for the business—just because I liked the prints and it went with our brand—I started sewing masks for local health communities,” she says.
After Hudson Valley Magazine picked up the story, Leung’s business received some unexpected publicity and many more people joined the mask-making movement.
“There are distilleries that are making hand sanitizer. And there are other people who, if they have the means to donate food and help out, they do,” Leung says. “If you are good to the community, people will remember you—especially when this crisis is over. People remember the people who were good to them and the people who were helpful.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.