In the gravel driveway of Siena Farms on a recent afternoon, 20-somethings in work boots and cloth masks packed boxes full of early-spring treasures: tightly wound fiddleheads, ramps with blush-pink stalks, spicy baby greens just plucked from the field.
It used to be a grind for Chris Kurth to find customers for these boxes, and for years, his Sudbury farm barely broke even. Kurth’s wife, the chef Ana Sortun, on the other hand, could barely keep up with demand at her popular restaurants in Cambridge and Somerville. She featured produce from the farm in inventive dishes at Oleana, Sarma, and Sofra Bakery & Cafe.
The coronavirus has flipped all that on its head. Sortun was forced to lay off nearly 90 percent of her staff and shutter Oleana’s doors temporarily. But on the farm, Kurth has seen explosive growth, as people rush to farm stands and invest in community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs. The farm’s year-round CSA membership has jumped from 200 to more than 1,000. (Full shares cost $750 for 12 weeks, with add-on options). Now the farm is producing something even sweeter than a spring-dug parsnip: a profit margin.
“For my crew, farming has always been very satisfying on a personal and social level,” Kurth said. “But I think that meaning has really been amplified this year.”
Across New England, many small farms are experiencing a similar renaissance. Even as they have lost, for now, their institutional and restaurant customers, some farms are ramping up production, expanding old-school farm stands, and even hiring more workers. Intense interest in local food is an unexpected silver lining of the pandemic, farmers say.
“By and large, we’re all doing pretty well, those of us who are direct to consumer,” said Mark Amato, the president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, a statewide advocacy group that represents around 6,000 farms. A surge in participation in online farm marketplaces reflects this trend; one platform, Local Food Marketplace, estimates that the number of Massachusetts farms selling goods on their site nearly doubled, from 190 to 350, over the past few months.
Farms in New England are different than in most other parts of the country, Amato said, because the vast majority have some direct-to-consumer model, which makes them particularly well poised to flourish right now. They also tend to produce a diverse range of crops to minimize risk, Amato said, making them adaptable. Some dairy farms are struggling because they rely on bulk buyers, but there are only about 200 dairy farms in the state. (And at some of those farms, home delivery is booming, with hundreds of people signing up for fresh milk and eggs).
Governor Baker, in his late March order closing all nonessential businesses, deemed farmers markets and farm stands essential, guaranteeing that they could remain open throughout the pandemic (most farmers markets in the state open in June). And so even though the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition made dire predictions of an almost $700 million decline in farm sales across the country in the early part of the year, many New England farms have so far managed to ward off disaster — and even, unexpectedly, to thrive.
Jamie Cruz, whose family has run SpringDell Farm in Littleton for nearly a century, has found the surge thrilling, if at times puzzling.
“It was wild to see some of the people who have never turned to local food,” she said, recalling customers who told her, “I never even knew I had any farms in my backyard, until I was like, oh my gosh, where am I going to get this food?”
Since the coronavirus hit, customers have flooded the farm stand at the front of Cruz’s property, prompting her to source some unlikely products to please them — like pineapple.
“We’re usually very seasonal,” she said, laughing. In addition to locally grown radishes, asparagus, baby kale, and other produce, the stand also sells some upscale and out-of-season products, including lemons and limes, soy candles, fair-trade coffee, and gluten-free pasta. A sign out front bears the farm’s tongue-in-cheek motto: “Keep your friends close & your food supply closer.”
Farms in Massachusetts produce less than 5 percent of food consumed in the state, Amato said, and the current growth in sales is primarily fueled by more affluent customers, who can afford to pay higher prices for fresher greens.
Many small farms, including Siena and SpringDell, have begun sourcing more items from other farms and local producers to meet growing demand, especially since not much is ready to harvest so early in the spring. In their spring pantry farm share, Siena Farms includes homemade tortillas from Mi Tierra Tortillas in Hadley, apples from Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Mass., and fresh-baked bread from Iggy’s in Cambridge.
“An important part of our operation this time of year in particular is the network of other farms that we work with,” said Kurth.
Siena Farms usually sells produce in the Boston Public Market and at the Copley Square Farmers Market, but now the vast majority of its sales are home deliveries to customers. It has also seen an uptick in sales at its small storefront in the South End.
With long lines and picked-over shelves at major grocery stores, some farm stand owners have transformed themselves into full-service grocers.
“People would say, ‘If you carried milk, then I wouldn’t have to go anywhere. If you carried butter, then I wouldn’t have to go anywhere else,’ ” said Pete Lowy, farm manager of the nonprofit Codman Community Farms in Lincoln, which primarily grows livestock. And so he found ways to stock those items. Last month, sales at his self-serve farm store were up 400 to 500 percent, he said.
Working with other local farms has made it possible to keep the shelves stocked after customers bought up three months of Lowy’s meat inventory in two weeks.
“We’re sourcing from other farms we know that usually sell to restaurants,” Lowy said. After restaurants closed, “I called right away, and they were grateful to get the business.”
The farm store is open 24/7, with no one manning the cash register, which Lowy says has been a relief for some frightened customers, who have begun coming in at 4 a.m. or midnight to do their weekly shopping. (People pay at self-serve kiosks and there are cameras for security).
Even farms that did cater specifically to chefs have found consumers surprisingly open to buying niche produce. Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth typically sells greens and herbs to upscale farm-to-table restaurants like Craigie on Main and Alden & Harlow, as well as to Whole Foods. Although overall business is way down, the farm has switched to doing local home delivery, with some positive results.
“We have a lot of pretty weird stuff," said Eva Sommaripa, the farm’s owner, describing a crop of edible flowers, sorrel, dandelion greens, and foraged edibles like chickweed and nettles. But, she added, “Now people are buying it and loving it.”
Home cooks seem more willing to experiment with greens that are new to them, especially because they can’t go to restaurants to eat imaginative dishes anymore.
“They want to have something really interesting,” Sommaripa said.
Advocates of the local food movement hope that the rising demand for local food lasts far beyond social distancing requirements and shortages in supermarkets.
They’re also thinking creatively about how to make sure people without much money can afford fresh and local vegetables. The state already doubles SNAP benefits spent at farmers markets and farm stands through its Healthy Incentives Program, and this week Governor Baker announced a $5 million increase for that program. Siena Farms just launched a program where customers can sponsor a CSA membership to be distributed to families facing food insecurity through the Boston YMCA.
For now, the craving for local, fresh food seems to go beyond just convenience, becoming a new principle in a moment that lends itself to cultural re-evaluation.
Marina Wong, who lives in Westford, stopped by the SpringDell farm stand on a recent afternoon to pick up groceries for the week. She had been recommending the farm stand on WeChat threads with her friends.
“Food is more expensive [at the farm stands] but because people can’t eat out anymore, that’s made up for it,” she said, putting two bunches of broccoli into a bag and admiring a pile of purple garlic.
She considered purchasing a bag of celery, but decided against it when she learned it was procured from Florida.
“I just want something local,” she said, “and it’s not like I have to eat celery today.”