With the depletion of certain items on grocery store shelves and the disruption to the supply chain, there is one thing the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, and that is the importance of locally grown food. In Maine and around the country, small farms in particular are seeing a surge of interest in what they have to offer, and membership sales in community supported agriculture are especially attractive right now.
At Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus, Jill Agnew starts up her tractor to tend to her fields that are about to be planted. Ever since the pandemic struck Maine in March, Agnew says that sales at her farm stand have been brisk, and memberships in her CSA have doubled. That is a program in which customers buy shares in the organic meat and produce that she raises, and then they pick it up on a weekly basis.
"We've already surpassed what I wanted for the year, but I keep signing up because I feel like we finally stepped into the mission of what CSA is, you know, it's feeding the community,” says Agnew. “And if people are finally seeing that, it's like, yay!”
Willow Pond was the first farm in Maine to start a CSA back in 1989. Agnew says it took a couple of years for the idea to catch on, but now there are hundreds across the state. Interest in them, however, has lagged with the rise of farmers' markets, and over the past five years Agnew has struggled to maintain her customer base. But this year, with the pandemic, everything is different.
"No one wants to go to the grocery store and, in the beginning, when I first opened the stand, we had a ton of eggs and, oh my gosh, the eggs just flew out of here,” she says. “I find that people come that are just up the street that may have never stopped here ever before...now I have flour, and I have shampoo, you know, just on a small scale, to see if people need that stuff and they do."
Farms have also tried to reach customers in new ways: with online ordering not only of produce and dairy products but fresh bread, hummus, soup and veggie burgers.
At Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon Falls, owner and farmer Keena Tracy started an online ordering system called Farm Drop for the first time this year, in which customers can select items from 16 local vendors, pay for it ahead of time and pick it up on Fridays. Customer turnout, she says, has been incredible.
"We were doubling every week, and now we have started to plateau, but we're at about anywhere between 70 and 90 customers every week, and we're selling over $5000 worth of product every week."
Tracy also sells shares in a CSA. The last couple of years have been a bit more challenging to fill, but not this year.
"This year I sold out by the middle of March, and now I have a deep waiting list," Tracy says.
Tammy Grieshaber of Lewiston has belonged to CSAs before, but this is the first time she's done the Food Drop.
"I got involved because it's the best way to get fresh food and help my neighbors," says Grieshaber.
She also buys directly from other area farms.
"I don't want to wait in line to get in the grocery store,” she says. “I go in for some things that I need, but the majority, at this point, I think I've got it organized where I can get most of what I want from the farms."
While small farms have not been forced to take drastic action like dumping milk or plowing over vegetables, like some larger operations around the country, they have had to confront some challenges. At Left Field Farm in Bowdoinham, for example, owner Sean Hagen says restaurant sales make up about 60 percent of his business. He also runs a CSA, but in early March when restaurants started closing and no one was asking about the CSA, Hagen says he got pretty worried.
"No sales for almost three weeks when the beginning of the crisis hit, and then as soon as the end of March, beginning of April hit, sales just took off," he says.
Last year Hagen sold about 120 CSA shares. This year he is at 140.
"I don't know that we're going to make up for what we're going to lose in restaurant sales...At least now we have some security and we're just going to hope for the best."
Hagen wonders whether the interest in local farms will continue after the pandemic subsides, but Keena Tracy of Little Ridge Farm believes it may have fueled a lasting appetite for locally grown, fresh ingredients in the rediscovered pleasure of home-cooked meals.
Correction May 15, 2020 8:56 p.m. ET: a previous version of this story misidentified Keena Tracy as "Sheena Tracy." We regret the error.