Early spurt of gardens, seed sales, farm shares With social distancing regs, farmers markets remain in limbo

By Evan Chadwick
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Covid-19 crisis has spurred an early spike in sales of seeds and growing supplies as well as people signing up for Community Supported Agriculture, even while it has stymied this summer’s farmers markets.

Jon Cohen walks among his greenhouse plants on a recent afternoon. All photos by Cynthia Prairie.

Jon Cohen, farmer and owner of Deep Meadow Farm in Ascutney, says that so far this year, he has seen a bump in signups for his Farm Direct program, a type of CSA that offers customers more choice.

In an interview on Thursday, he says he has gotten 14 new signups and three in the previous 24 hours — “and that’s early.” But he has yet to see a rush.  Over the past 30 days, he figures business is up about 8 percent.

Cohen farms 50 acres of flat Connecticut River land that also holds six large greenhouses.

To accommodate the state safety orders and recommendations, Cohen has made changes to his business. First of all, “There is no farmstand under current conditions,” he says. Instead, Farm Direct members order their produce online, and Cohen and his staff will prepackage the orders for members to pick up at scheduled, staggered times so that members don’t have contact with one another or with Deep Meadow workers.

Cohen has closed down his farmstand at Deep Meadow Farm for the foreseeable future.

Cohen sees the increased demand for his produce as a byproduct of the current lack of farmers’ markets. The winter markets were suspended early and the summer markets are on hold, due to Gov. Phil Scott’s directives on social distancing and the fact that they have not been deemed “essential,” a designation granted to grocery and convenience stores.

Adjustments will also have to be made because of the potential loss in farmers market income — Cohen sells at three summer markets, including West River in Londonderry. If those don’t happen, he could lose 18 percent of his annual income.  “We’re going to try to reduce our labor by 18 percent,” he says. And he expects that a good portion may be saved in both prepping for the farmers markets and the time spent at them.

Farmers markets on hold

Maddie Kempner, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said  that a return date for Vermont farmers markets has yet to be determined. “We have not heard any indication from the (Scott) administration that the farmers’ market restriction will be lifted any time soon,” she said. “We understand that things cannot continue as normal but, as we have seen in other states, we are hoping that restrictions can be lifted to allow farmers markets to reopen in some fashion before the summer market season,” which usually begins in mid to late May.

Mark Fisher, owner of Woodcock Farm Cheese Company in Weston and president of the West River Farmers Market in Londonderry, said, “We are a later market to open and we’re not making a judgment just now.” The Saturday West River market can also be crowded. “As long as we have social spacing, it’s difficult to have people walk around a market.” The decision to open, he adds, “is a prerogative of the state.”

Unlike Vermont, California has deemed open air farmers markets an essential service, allowing markets to remain open as long as they adhere to strict sanitary guidelines, such as prohibiting sampling of unpackaged food and forcing merchants to stagger customers to limit crowding.

Kempner sees the California restrictions, as well as similar ones implemented in New York, as useful guidance for Vermont to reopen their markets. “Our hope is to work with the Agency of Agriculture to create clear guidelines that will balance the need for public safety with the need for citizens to regularly have access to fresh produce.”

For now, CSAs of all types are looking to fill the void in their community. “We have seen more traffic at the farm in the last three weeks then we saw in the prior five months,” stated Nancy Witherill of Bloodroot Farm in Rockingham. “Neighbors are flocking to the farm to buy eggs.”

Witherill, whose small farm has primarily focused on growing for child-care providers, has not only seen an increase in her egg demand, but also an unprecedented interest in her farm itself. “The increased interest in our farm in the last several weeks has been far more effective than two to three years of advertising,” she said.

Domenica and Gary Coger will be gardening a 20 by 20 foot plot this year.

Grassroots efforts for Victory Gardens

With the increase in purchasing local produce has also come an increased interest in consumers growing their own food, a sort of grassroots “Victory Garden” movement, which the U.S. government encouraged during World War II to help the war effort by taking pressure off the public food supply.

Chester resident Domenica Coger and her husband Gary are a part of that effort, installing their own Victory Garden at their Main Street residence, plowing up a 20-foot by 20-foot plot on their side yard.

“I have always wanted a garden,” Domenica Coger says. “Because we have an amazing amount of time to dedicate to it and the obvious need to learn these skills for the future, everything fell into place.”

Coger says she hopes that even after social distancing measures are lifted, this small-scale personal farming trend continues to pick up momentum. “In the next two years, I hope we are a lot more educated. We would love to work with other local home gardeners sharing knowledge and trading. It’s a system that creates community.”

A growing demand for seeds

The Cogers reflect a growing interest not only in Vermont, but nationally as organic seeds purchases have seen a significant increase since early to mid-March.

Day to day sales of High Mowing Seeds are up 180 to 300 percent.

“People are buying more seeds right now,” says Julie Pollard, owner of Chester Hardware. Pollard attributes the increase in sales to the extra time many customers have on their hands. “With the shutdowns, I think people are buying earlier in the season than normal.”

The proactive nature of gardeners this season is also apparent on the production level. High Mowing Organic Seeds, located in Wolcott in Lamoille County, which sells its seeds nationwide, has seen substantial increases in sales since early March. “Our day-by-day comparisons show that we have had an increase in sales anywhere from 180 percent to 300 percent as compared to same day numbers for 2019,” said Andrea Tursini, director of sales and marketing.

Although Covid-19 has caused significant hurdles for High Mowing, such as the proper implementation of distancing at work and the departure of some staff due to health concerns, Tursini says the company has been able to keep up with demand. “We have no plan to shut our doors,” says Tursini, who attributes a portion of the increase in sales to shortages at grocery stores as well as to parents who are looking for valuable lessons for their now homeschooled children.

— Cynthia Prairie contributed to this article.

Originally from Rochester, Vermont, Evan Chadwick is a practicing attorney who lives in Brattleboro with his family. He is a 2007 graduate of Keene State College and a former varsity basketball coach for Bellows Falls Union High School.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Filed Under: Business & Personal FinanceBusinessesCommunityCommunity and Arts LifeCovid 19 CoverageFeaturedMandated shutdowns

About the Author:

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.