Local farmers say they are selling more directly to consumers due to COVID-19 pandemic
Local farmers’ relationships with restaurants have become restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading many farmers to sell less to restaurants and more directly to consumers. This change is partly due to staff shortages in the service sector, growing consumer interest and labor shortages.
Elizabeth Jones, co-owner of local Stranger’s Hill Organics farm, said the farm has sold to restaurants in the past but not this season, citing labor shortages and declining production as a result .
“We’re coming to the end of this season,” Jones said. “I’m not sure what will be like next year. I really hope we can get better and get more help.
Jones also said she believed a lot of people didn’t eat out because they had learned to cook during the pandemic and instead went to markets to buy ingredients for meals.
Bloomington-based Wilderlove Farm also supplies some restaurants, but co-owner Kyle Smith said restaurants have had to downsize.
Smith said one of the restaurants his farm normally works with has reduced hours of operation due to limited staff. As a result, the restaurant had to cut back on what it was buying in Wilderlove. Smith said the labor shortage has had an effect even on a small business like his.
Wilderlove operates less than an acre of land and has four employees. Smith said the smaller scale of the business helps cut costs and allows them to focus on better product quality and stewardship so they can deliver better products to consumers.
“I think you are naturally isolated from any kind of negative trend on the labor side,” Smith said of his farm business. “The other problem is, since we have a small crew, if one of us breaks down, that could be bad news, right? You wouldn’t have a team big enough to absorb a single person.
Smith said Wilderlove tried to pivot early in the COVID-19 pandemic to best respond to consumers. He opened an online store, started a delivery service, and continued to sell at farmers’ markets, which Smith says account for 80% of their sales. Smith said there were risks there too.
“You have a rainy Saturday or for some reason the market is closed, that’s a big outlet,” he said of the possibility of losing his sales at the farmers’ market.
Smith said it’s good to recognize the risks in your revenue stream and have protections in place, and that direct-to-consumer sales naturally isolate from those risks. However, Smith said it was difficult to grow and grow his business accordingly.
“I think overall the pandemic has helped us more than it hurt us, just financially,” Smith said.
Susan Welstand, better known as Chile Woman and a People’s Market salesperson, said business has improved for her over the past two years in online sales. Welstand said she is shipping pepper plants to restaurants across the country for chefs looking for unique varieties, but the pandemic has changed who buys from her company.
“During the pandemic, all of these restaurants were closed,” Welstand said. “It was really weird. We were so used to packing factories for these customers year after year. “
Welstand still receives orders from restaurants, but beyond that, she said she saw an increase in home gardening orders last year.
Welstand also said that the herbal companies saw increased sales in 2020 due to increased customer interest.