Connecticut farms provide local connection to food sources

As nonessential businesses throughout Connecticut and elsewhere have been shuttered, many small businesses are struggling. This is the second article in a series looking at how small farming-related businesses are coping and turning to new business models and technology to stay connected with customers.

Besides being deemed an essential business by the state, local farms and nursery centers are taking advantage of mostly being open-air businesses, which helps customers feel more comfortable about shopping. In this COVID-19 era, people also increasingly want to know where their food comes from, buy local and in some cases, grow their own food.

Hollandia Nurseries in Bethel likes to say it recycles its air every time the wind blows. Owner Eugene Reelick says even though the nurseries have 20 acres, they have done much to inspire people to feel safe, from sterilizing gates and door handles to having outdoor cash registers and leaving doors open to greenhouses. Like most businesses today, Hollandia also has installed shields by cashiers. “We have had to do quite a bit obviously to allow the public to come in …. and to feel safe and walk around. We are all wearing our masks and PPE (personal protection equipment). We are really cautious and conscious of everyone’s wishes, needs and wants,” he said. The cashier shields are not plexiglass either but are antique glass windows in keeping with a New England aesthetic.

While customers can walk around and choose their own plants, many opt for curbside pickup. “This has really worked out well for a lot of our clients. It’s a little more work for staff, running around and grabbing a four-pack of this or that but it all works out,” Reelick said. “And, of course, the vegetable gardening is huge.”

As families spend more time together, people are also looking for children’s gardening items as a shared activity, says Henry Gilbertie of Gilbertie’s Organics, which has a farm in Easton and a store in Westport. The business has set up a children’s section and to interest first-time gardeners, it also promotes container gardening and raised beds. “There isn’t only one way to attack this thing, you sort of go out in multiple directions,” he said, noting that curbside payment and pickup has become big and they offer local delivery on orders over a certain amount. Gilbertie emphasized communication with customers to instill confidence was key. “We could be open but that doesn’t mean people are going to come out of their houses and shop so that’s why we put in the curbside pickup and delivery,” he said.

Being a seasonal business, farms and nursery centers are heading into their peak season so this could not have happened at a worse time. “The challenge right now for us is, and this is true of any spring seasonal business, is that 80 percent of our revenue and cash flow is earned in the next 90 days, literally from April 1 to June 30,” Gilbertie said. “The other nine months of the year, we essentially break even or lose money so the cash we generate during this period of time basically sustains the business.”

Tom Harbinson, facilities and hospitality manager, Jones Family Farm and Winery in Shelton, notes the business has been affected on both the farm side of the business and the winery. It has closed the tasting room and canceled classes but are offering wine bottle sales via curbside pickup. Pick-your-own season has not started yet (strawberries will be available in June) so the main activity keeping the business busy in recent weeks has been transplanting Christmas trees from the nursery to fields as well as pruning vines and tying them to trellises in the vineyard.

Harbinson has participated in a lot of online meetings with other farmers, especially in areas like Florida and Texas, whose growing season is about two months ahead. “We are gleaning some knowledge from their real-life experiences in a pandemic that they are already incurring because they are further south of us.”

Patti Popp, owner of Sport Hill Farm in Easton, began in 2000 with a few acres and hens, selling free-range eggs and vegetable crops. Today, the farm sells nearly 100 varieties of non-GMO, sustainable produce and typically operates a seasonal market May-December. “In light of the events, we are opening to support our community and other small businesses with local, nutrient dense food,” she said. “The rug has been pulled out from under all small businesses’ feet and everyone is scared and scrambling how to make their small business sustainable in times of uncertainty.”

Popp hired a local person to help revamp the farm’s website for online pre-orders for curbside pickup, which she estimates she will offer at least through May. “Currently, I am manually taking orders, filling orders, scheduling pickup times and trying to plant, transplant and harvest food,” she said. “I am stressed beyond belief. I am also blessed to see many people returning to their local producers. I offer open air curbside pre-order pickup, staggering times so not too many people come together.”

The Westport Farmers’ Market switched gears in early April to allow people to order and pay for items from the market’s vendors online with curbside pickup at the weekly markets by appointment. In the last two weeks, the market has served about 200 customers each week. Its mission is to support farmers, bakers and vendors as well as those who shop the markets.

“Having access to local and healthy food is important and it should not be a privilege, it needs to be more and more part of our lives,” executive director Lori Cochran said. “People are wanting to know where their food is coming from and want to get healthy food in their hands. Having that relationship with their local farmers’ market, that they are able to have access to food to feed their families and access to be able to grow their food.”