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Small Farms Struggle To Cope With Market Changes Brought On By Covid-19

Ripe City Urban Farm

Local farmers are struggling to cope with changes brought on by Covid-19. For some, business is booming, but for others, the outbreak is a nightmare.

Jennifer Krell Davis is a Board Member of the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance. The non-profit has an online market where local farmers can sell goods. Krell Davis says demand for fresh produce has been increasing over the years. Now, due to Covid-19, there's been a spike in sales. 

"A lot of our customers that were only getting one bag of produce are [now] getting two or three bags,"  Krell Davis says.

She  says some of these customers might be using the extra produce to prep and freeze for the future. However, determining whether that demand will continue is a concern for Kelly and Christina Cogswell. They're owners of Paradise Found Farms and specialize in raising chickens on pastures and selling the meat.

"It has been to this point absolutely crazy," Kelly Cogswell says. "The shortage of product[s] in the traditional grocery stores has driven more customers to us than we can handle."

The farm usually processes chickens on Fridays, and that's enough to last two to three weeks. Now, due to the demand surge, it will only last one week.

Credit Paradise Found Farms
Paradise Found Farms
The production on Paradise Found Farms usually stops in the summer due to the heat. That means, in the spring, the Cogswell's try to get enough inventory carry them through summer. However, Kelly Cogswell says what he put aside for that period has already been depleted due to the demand surge.

"It takes eight weeks to grow a bird, right? So we can only do what we have ready to harvest. We have a lot of birds on the ground, but we have birds that are two weeks old, four weeks old, six weeks old," Christina Cogswell says.

They haven't run out of chickens yet. One of their main concerns is whether increasing production will hurt the farm.

"So if we try to increase production to keep up because we don't know how long this is going to last, are we going to end up on the wrong side of the curve at the end," Kelly Cogswell says.

They're planning to ramp up production. The Cogswell's added on-farm pick up as an option to customers, and other local farms like Orchard Pond have started doing that as well.

"It's been interesting to learn and develop with it. It's kept us on our toes. And of course, we want to be able to feed folks," says Orchard Pond sales manager Katie Reeves. 

However, she says it's too soon to tell whether the increase in sales is due to Covid-19.

How the coronavirus outbreak impacts farmers depends on how heavily they rely on restaurants and grocery store clients. Orchard Pond works with Whole Foods and Publix, and that provides extra stability as restaurants close and switch to curbside pickup. However, other farms without those contracts are getting walloped.

"Oh, it's been a nightmare," says Josh Saul, owner and operator of Play of Sunlight Mushrooms.

It's an indoor farm that grows specialty mushrooms—like chestnut, oyster and lion's mane. Saul relies on restaurants for sales, and he says last week, almost all of his orders were canceled. Now, his primary source of income is through the Red Hills Online Farmers Market.

"So we can't pay our bills with that. Not even close," Saul says.

Credit Play Of Sunlight Mushroom
Play Of Sunlight Mushroom
Josh Saul (right) says before Covid-19 business was great. He was planning to expand his farm and start growing shiitake mushrooms. Locally, he sold his mushrooms to Backwoods Crossing, Kool Beanz Cafe, and more.

His business model involves selling 40 to 50 pounds of mushrooms per restaurant. That operation is expensive, and the demand through the online market is not enough. Meanwhile, Sarah Bardolph, owner, and operator of Ripe City Urban Farms, says before Covid-19, she was selling spring mixes to seven local restaurants. Now, only the Bark is accepting her orders.

"So luckily, I'm small enough, and my overhead is low enough that I'm just kind of hunkering down and still planting seeds for the future. Getting more of my spring crops in the ground and hoping for some swift change and return to normal," Bardolph says.

Credit Ripe City Urban Farms
Sarah Bardolph was selling her produce to 7 local restaurants including: The Bark, Sweet Pea, Cypress, Kool Beanz, Il Luso, Square Mug Cafe, and Liam's.

Bardolph is now planning to diversify what she grows to manage changes in the market.

"So I no longer feel like I need to grow six rows of tomatoes this season or five rows of beans because I wouldn't be able to sell all of that, and I don't want food going to waste," Bardolph says.

Her challenge now, along with other local farmers, is figuring out what this new market will look like.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.