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How small farms discovered new clients through the coronavirus pandemic

When the Covid 19 pandemic forced companies to close and people stay at home, the way Americans received and consumed food changed dramatically.

Grocery stores were sold out and food banks were overwhelmed, but many farmers who used to serve restaurants, schools, and retail businesses faced tons of additional products. When the initial shock of this shift subsided, local farmers turned to new business models and their communities doubled.

A defense is a closed food system in which a farm controls an entire food chain.

"If you don't grow it locally and you don't grow it locally, you are susceptible to food chain disruption," said Jon McConaughy of Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Jon and his wife Robin had invested in a closed food system before the pandemic. They started the farm in 2003 and have added a slaughterhouse, butcher, bakery, market and restaurant over time. Everything is born, raised and harvested on the farm. What is not used in the restaurant or on the market also returns to the farm as food or fertilizer.

Jon and Robin McConaughy with part of their cattle at Double Brook Farm.

Screenshot of "Supermarket Shock: American Food Supply Crisis".

So when the pandemic disrupted supply chains elsewhere, the McConaughys were not afraid of running out of food. Of course, they weren't completely spared – they had to close their dining area and shift their market to online ordering, collection, and delivery. Before they received a loan through the paycheck protection program, they took 75% of their employees, around 70 employees.

But the McConaughys have fixed customers who appreciate the relative security of their offerings.

"I think the way people see us as a supplier of local goods has really changed," said Robin McConaughy. "Our customers were so happy that we were open. And they felt safe and calm because we could say that we will always have eggs."

The closed food system has one vulnerability: Covid-19.

"What we've built has isolated us … a lot can happen in the rest of the world and it won't affect our food system," said Jon McConaughy. "Except when our employees get sick."

Like other business owners, McConaughys have taken precautions, such as: B. wearing face masks and gloves, and using hand disinfectants.

During the pandemic, buying local farmers isn't just about values, it's also about security.

"Local is not just about where your food comes from or what practices the farmer uses, it's also about the idea of ​​community safety," said Jon McConaughy.

The closed food system on a somewhat larger scale is the closed community food system. Double Brook had already built mutually beneficial relationships with other farms in the region to offer more products. It emphasized the value of the community by partnering with nearby farmers who use sustainable best practices, such as Blue Moon Acres, which mainly supplies its tavern with rice specialties and microgreens. Double Brook also uses Zone 7, a local New Jersey farm food distributor to supply its market and tavern.

As the pandemic reduced some types of demand but created others, these relationships became even more important and gave companies the opportunity to change their operating models.

The downtimes in March hit both companies hard and quickly. Zone 7, which was mainly delivered to schools and restaurants, lost 80% of its sales overnight. Blue Moon Acres was unable to move many of its products because 90% of its customers were restaurants, including those of the world famous chefs Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

"We literally dumped five greenhouses full of products in one day on every last working day," said Kathy Lyons, co-owner of Blue Moon Acres.

Jim and Kathy Lyons from Blue Moon Acres in one of their greenhouses.

Screenshot of "Supermarket Shock: American Food Supply Crisis".

Both companies turned to meet the changing needs of their remaining customers and the different needs of new potential customers. Zone 7 expanded its home delivery service and sold more to retailers. New partners have been found who are trying to launch their products, such as Blue Moon Acres.

The relationship "really kept us going," said co-owner Jim Lyons. Blue Moon Acres is now selling more seedlings and container items to retailers, supermarkets and individual customers through its website.

Blue Moon Acres also found that customers were more willing to buy new types of products. As the only commercial rice grower in New Jersey, the Lyons discovered that the $ 100,000 rice they had stored last fall had become one of their best-selling products in difficult times, and they are preparing to do so in September to harvest a new crop.

Your local giant supermarket has turned to them to sell baby greens directly to consumers, a sign of increased demand. Kathy Lyons believes this potential business opportunity has arisen because "people want to know where the food comes from more than ever."

It remains to be seen how deeply the values ​​and behavior of customers will change when the panic about empty supermarkets has subsided and certain parts of the country are reopening. From July, the McConaughys reopened their in-store shopping market with a limit of eight customers each. They now offer outdoor table foods both on a large lawn and in a newly purchased 40 by 60 foot tent. With the help of the PPP loan, they put most of their employees on hold and switched roles to meet the changing needs of the company.

Although Robin McConaughys says that more and more people are shopping in supermarkets and ordering to take away from restaurants again, their market business is "steadily returning".

She also remains confident that "if there is just a small mistake in the food supply, our community will go straight back to the local mindset. The" sticky "business comes from customers we didn't have before the pandemic and who found us worth in of the quality of our products. "

For more stories from these companies, see "Supermarket Shock: American Food Supply Crisis".

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