Local farmers have long maintained that they offered consumers a superior alternative to the food that is available in supermarkets. Not just because they raise their animals and grow their vegetables in a natural, sustainable way, and not only because they believe these methods mean their food just tastes better. But also because their proximity to markets and customers means less time and less fuel is used to get food from the farm to the table.
The coronavirus pandemic has proved an unexpected opportunity for farmers to drive home their message. When the national and international food supply chains threatened to break down in early spring, local farms offered the kind of security and certainty that many people craved.
Demand for products from local farms has been strong since the pandemic began, and Hopewell farmers like James Klett at Fairgrown Farm and Lucia Stout Huebner at Beechtree Farm say that demand hasn’t abated even as food supplies are normalizing and state-mandated lockdowns have eased.
Brothers James and Alex Klett opened Fairgrown Farm in Hopewell last year, using many tried-and-true principles of community-supported agriculture to get their business going.
The brothers started up the Hopewell Farmers market in part so they could readily distribute their fresh seasonal produce to their shareholders once a week. They opened a stand at the Montgomery Farmers Market as well to broaden their reach. They remain active in both markets this season.
But they also trialed a new kind of share program, one that has proven very popular in the era of the pandemic: they started up a home delivery program.
The 2019 program was small to start. Fifteen members received weekly boxed shares of fresh Fairgrown Farm vegetables straight to their door. The members had to live within 8 miles of the farm. (This year, the radius is 10 miles.)
The program was successful enough for the Kletts to bank on expanding it in 2020: They set a goal of doubling delivery shares to 30. Then the pandemic hit.
Suddenly, the idea of getting farm-fresh veggies delivered directly to one’s door sounded that much more appealing. The Kletts had originally hoped to reach their target of 30 customers by June. By the time they stopped accepting new delivery customers on June 1, they had 100 — more than three times their goal.
Deliveries began at the start of June and are expected to continue through the end of October. “It seems that fresh delivery of vegetables for a guaranteed 20 weeks is a very appealing offering right now,” Klett says.
While delivery shares are no longer available for this season, market shares with pickup at the Hopewell and Montgomery Farmers Markets can still be reserved on the Fairgrown Farm website.
The rise in demand for local produce among families and individuals was an unexpected gain from the pandemic, but it did not come without a concurrent loss: demand from restaurants dropped as the state closed all dining rooms in New Jersey.
Restaurants have slowly rebounded as they have adapted to an all-takeout-and-delivery model, and now they are slowly opening up for outdoor dining. But demand is still down. Anticipation of that shortfall is another reason the Kletts boosted their home delivery program.
Fairground Farm was fortunate to have already implemented its home delivery program in 2019. For many other CSAs in the area that wanted to offer home delivery, that meant starting up a new system from scratch — even as they were deep into planting season.
“We were very fortunate to have had a delivery share program already in place, so we kind of had a system that was scalable,” Klett says. “A lot of other farms had to figure out some way to deliver all their products, and that’s a huge barrier to jump through. But for us it became just figuring out a way to feed more people through it.”
While the pandemic has created problems for farmers to solve, Klett sees some positives coming from the experience.
“[The pandemic has] made people pay a little more attention to local food,” he says. “A big part of that is that people are cooking more. One of the problems we have had as a farm selling raw ingredients is that people are used to buying ready-to-eat foods, and buying fresh produce wasn’t as regular a thing as it used to be.”
Klett is optimistic that restaurants will rebound by late summer, when the tomato and garlic crops that restaurants crave will be ready. “We’ve been so focused on the direct-to-consumer parts of our farm — markets and deliveries — that we haven’t had much produce for restaurants in the first place. Once we enter tomato season (in mid-July), we’ll have a much better feel for restaurant demand. So far, they’re buying, but only in smaller amounts.” he says.
Hopewell Farmers Market, Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 63 E. Broad St., Hopewell.
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At Beechtree Farm in Hopewell, farmers Lucia Stout Huebner and Charlie Huebner raise their animals in pastures, taking a natural approach that contrasts starkly with the methods of large, regional factory farms. Stout has been working to raise awareness of local farms and pastured animals for a long time now.
“My wake-up call was finding out how much healthier meat is from animals raised on pasture, versus from animals raised on concrete feedlots given a constant supply of grain, antibiotics and hormones,” she says. “It horrifies me that Americans are suffering from chronic diseases because of the way our food is produced.”
Demand for their naturally produced, pasture raised meats started to rise as soon as the pandemic hit and meat became scarce at area grocery stores. Stout says it hasn’t abated yet.
“We have seen at least a 300% increase in demand for our meat,” she says. “This pandemic has made it abundantly clear why it’s important to support local farmers to protect our food resiliency. Local farms are better for our local economy, local farms help us keep open space viable. Middle-class jobs are created by farms and those businesses who supply farms. Organic and regenerative farmers take care of our nonrenewable resources: soil, water and the biodiversity of plants and animals.”
Beechtree Farm has long sold its frozen meats direct to consumers on the farm. This continues in the social-distancing era. Customers can call, text or email orders in, and pick them up at a table at the entrance to the Beechtree Farm barn.
“They come and pack their orders into their own bags,” she says. “I disinfect the table. We’re able to speak to each other comfortably from a distance. And we all wear masks and gloves of course. It works very well.”
Through May, Stout was concerned that butchering operations in the state would be overwhelmed by the high demand. For a time, farmers were having trouble scheduling dates to process their livestock for distribution. As of June, however, she says Beechtree Farm has secured all the processing slots it needs for now.
Stout adds that business has been going especially well now that farmers markets throughout the area have opened for the summer. Beechtree Farm has stands at the Pennington, Hopewell and West Windsor Farmers Markets.
“The market managers have all done an excellent job setting the markets up to maintain social distancing and ensure safety for both vendors and shoppers,” she says.
She is hopeful that Beechtree Farm will retain some of the new customers it has gained during the pandemic. “My guess is that some people will get this and keep up their support, and some will go back to old habits,” she says.
“I’ve always been appreciative of our wonderful customers who ‘get it.’ And so many do. It would be excellent if this trend spread across the country.”
Pennington Farmers Market, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Rosedale Mills, 101 Route 31, Pennington.
West Windsor Community Farmers Market, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Princeton Junction Train Station, 2 Vaughn Drive, West Windsor.