Spring planting has barely begun in Massachusetts with only faint signs of green to show the season’s change, and it’s still weeks from the usual opening dates for Massachusetts farmers’ markets. But farmers, delivery services, farmers’ market administrators, and officials are grappling with the challenges of getting farm products to customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along with those challenges — and orders to stay at home, shuttered restaurants, and much more home cooking — are surges in demand for home delivery of local food, which many deem safer and of better quality. At times, the demand is straining the resources of small farms and businesses. And because Governor Charlie Baker has deemed farmers’ markets essential businesses, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources has issued protocols for remaining winter markets and upcoming spring markets that managers are hurrying to implement.
Two years ago, Matt Tortora and his wife, Erin, started WhatsGood, a farm-to-consumer service, using a mobile phone app for ordering, two years ago. Although in the past delivery was mostly to pickup points in office buildings, health studios, and other locations, right now they’re taking eggs, vegetables, locally raised meat, and local fish directly to customers’ homes in the Greater Boston area and Rhode Island three to four days a week. In the last three weeks, sales volume has gone up 600 percent, and the business is adding 10 farms a day in the region. “Our drivers are reporting people who receive their orders are crying when we arrive,” Tortora says.
Another similar app-driven service, Market 2Day, has seen “demand go through the roof,” says cofounder Insa Elliott. The company, which delivers food from winter and summer farmers’ markets to customers in Boston, Cambridge, north of Boston, and the South Shore, also started two years ago. As of now, the customer base has grown “3,000 times” the previous number, and the order sizes have been 50 percent more, Elliott says. “People are so delighted to get good, high-quality food.”
Farmers relying on CSA (community-supported agriculture) as part of their business plan also are seeing big increases. Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farm in Sudbury, says that three weeks ago the number of CSA boxes ordered by his customers was at 150; the next week 250, and last week 350, and is continuing to grow. The boxes of root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, cabbages, and turnips stored from last fall plus fresh greens from Siena’s greenhouses, bread, honey, and other local products are delivered to metro Boston, Metro West, and “basically anywhere within [Interstate] 495,” Kurth says. He also sells in the outdoor market three days a week at Boston Public Market.
Even small-scale operations are seeing boosts. Michelle Mulford, owner of Uncommon Feasts, a small restaurant and catering business in Lynn, expanded her takeout menu to include radishes, braising greens, arugula, pork chops, and other products from Alprilla Farm in Essex, First Light Farm in Hamilton, and others. “Oh, my gosh,” Mulford says, “it’s huge.” She had been using CropShop, a service that connects restaurants and farms, for her locally sourced cooking, and decided to sell and deliver those vegetables and other products to customers on the North Shore.
“It’s been really good for the farmers,” she says of her efforts, which in the first week had five orders and within several weeks had 30, “all from word of mouth.”
As farmers and businesses work to get food to consumers through home delivery, market managers such as Hal Shubin of the Belmont Farmers’ Market, Mark Cullings of the Hingham market, and Leslie Wilcott-Henrie of the Lexington market have been meeting with others to discuss how the markets will look when they open in cities and towns in the Boston area. “We’re all hoping to open and be as regular as possible,” says Shubin of Belmont. His market is scheduled to open June 4; the Hingham Farmers’ Market’s 2020 schedule has a May 2 start date, and the Lexington market May 26. However, Lexington has also had a winter market, with the last this season on April 11. Wilcott-Henrie says that protocols have already been in place in the winter markets, including sanitizing and social distancing, and things had gone well so far. But for all of them, the summer markets that attract crowds present more challenges. “We have to be thinking of what’s going on [with the virus]” when the summer market season starts.
For some, available space can be cramped, presenting problems even in the outdoors.
“Farmers are concerned about their personal safety,” says Cullings, but they’re also concerned about getting their product to customers.
In late March, the state Department of Agricultural Resources released a bulletin on best practices for farmers’ market operations.
The protocols include social distancing between vendors and among patrons; banning product samples and the use of reusable bags; advice on minimizing the number of touches; cleaning and sanitizing of vendor displays; handwashing hygiene; promoting wearing of gloves; minimizing money handing; and planning for cancellations. MDAR Commissioner John Lebeaux points out that farmers’ markets give consumers another way to get wholesome food during this period, adding “we want as many access points” as possible.
The viability of Massachusetts agriculture is also a concern, Lebeaux says, since the bulk of farm sales in the state is direct to consumers through farmers’ markets, farm stands, home delivery, and small shops. Massachusetts is fifth in the nation in direct sales, he says, and although the state’s agriculture is not in a position to fully feed its population, it’s important that as much Massachusetts-produced product gets to consumers as possible. There has been “a big uptick” in sales of local milk, Lebeaux points out.
One of the key concerns of Lebeaux and the farmers’ market managers is for those who use HIP (Healthy Incentives Program). The program benefits, in which SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients can receive $1 for each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables from an HIP-authorized farm or vendor, can only be used at farmers’ markets, farm stands, and farm-related retailers in Massachusetts. “We don’t want to deny those folks the ability” to get fresh food, Lebeaux says.
"This season, things may look a little different,” says Edith Murnane, executive director of Mass Farmers Markets. “The physical setup of the market may have changed to accommodate social distancing guidelines; you may find handwashing stations at the entrance” and in more populated areas, there may be controls on numbers, she says. “But at the farmers’ market — you’re outdoors — and even with social distancing, you get to see your neighbors or say hello to your farmer from last year. It’s going to be a welcome change — access to delicious local food, outdoors in a healthy setting.”
Along with the protocols at farmers’ markets, services and CSAs that deliver to homes are using contact-less deliveries, usually notifying the homeowner by text, then leaving the order at an assigned spot. The aggregators and drivers wear protective gloves and masks, and the products are packed in paper bags, not reusable containers. Drivers are either employed directly by WhatsGood, Market 2Day, and others, or a small, local delivery service in the case of Siena Farm. One of the offshoots, says Elliot of Market 2Day, is the need for more workers. “It’s wonderful to be able to offer employment,” she says, in this time of economic uncertainty.
Tortora of WhatsGood has added Katsiroubas Brothers, a large wholesale produce distributor that sells mostly to restaurants, to his lineup. This gives consumers access to avocados and other products not farmed or produced locally, and helps the distributor when restaurants are shuttered, he says.
However, for those who have been the middlemen between New England farms and food producers for years, such as Greg Georgaklis, founder of Farmers to You in business for 10 years in Massachusetts and Northern Vermont, this is a wakeup call for consumers. The number of people signing up is “astounding,” Georgaklis says, adding that many say they had been planning to do so for years, believing that locally produced vegetables, meats, and other foods were of better quality and had been handled less.
This crisis, and fears of lack of distancing in supermarkets, propelled the change to a model of either pickup points where staff wear masks, gloves, and follow sanitizing procedures and have no direct contact with customers as well as some home deliveries.
Four weeks in, he says, business has increased 150 percent. More importantly, he says, “My hope is that this really does change the way people buy food.” He sees it as a forced opportunity for consumers to buy as local as possible and to realize small family farms, cheese, and honey producers should be supported for their quality, as well as safety.
Meanwhile, the challenges can be steep. Chris Grant operates a small egg farm in Essex with his mother, and started online orders with home delivery two years ago to fill in when the summer farmers’ markets he sells at weren’t open. Starting three weeks ago, his egg orders climbed to 300 dozen a week, with deliveries going from once to twice a week. He’s getting calls from all over the state and beyond — “I don’t know how they find us,” he says.
When the online ordering system opens at 7 a.m. several times a week, the eggs are gone within an hour or so. But the hens can produce only so much, he and his mother have to clean and pack all the eggs, and he’s the only one delivering the eggs to homes on the North Shore and in Roslindale and West Roxbury. Though he sounds a little shell-shocked in a phone interview, he’s looking ahead:
“I hope they all just remember us when this is over.”