A Call to Farms

A Call to Farms

Six months ago, CitySeed farmers’ market regular Waldingfield Farm, located in Washington, Connecticut, had neither the resources nor the demand to run its own farm stand. Now, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Waldingfield boasts a busy concern at its farm six days a week. Fellow CitySeed regular Truelove Farms, based in Morris, experienced such a spike in egg demand that it had to ration purchases. Arethusa Farm in Litchfield, which has numerous retail outlets including a dairy in downtown New Haven, has experienced a surge in direct-to-consumer sales as well.

In a time when people are reconsidering their reliance on national supply chains, local and regional farmers are providing a welcome alternative. Patrick Horan, the co-owner of Waldingfield, which specializes in seasonal organic vegetables, found opportunity when COVID-19 first spread to the United States and many people were suddenly afraid to go to the grocery store—or even the farmers’ market. “I knew what we needed to do,” he says. “We opened [the farm stand] in early March… and it’s turned into a legitimate store.” As an added bonus, the stand has been a catalyst for collaboration: “I’m carrying Seacoast mushrooms [from Mystic], and my older brother Dan runs [local distributor] Five Acre Farms, so we carry that.” Horan also sells products from local farms that depended on dried-up restaurant sales. Collaboration is key, he says, as it provides consumers an opportunity to buy a fuller range of items in a single stop.

George Malkemus, co-owner of Arethusa Farm, already had the diversification provided by a retail component as opposed to dealing exclusively in wholesale. “When the schools and restaurants fell apart,” he says, “I had the safety net of retail stores and retail accounts to offset the private schools and restaurants that bought our products” wholesale. Malkemus notes that the farms depicted dumping milk in popular media are, in all likelihood, dealing almost exclusively in wholesale. But for Arethusa, “All of our milk goes into our product line… There’s great safety in being in a business where you don’t depend on the middle man. If you can sell it right to the consumer… you’re in a better place.”

In addition to the dairy products the company is known for, Arethusa’s retail outlets began carrying herbs and tomatoes from its gardens. “There’s a certain comfort of going to one spot knowing where everything came from,” Malkemus says. Comfort is what customers are looking for in these uncertain times, he thinks—including in their orders from Al Tavolo, the farm’s fine-dining restaurant in Bantam. “We have fried chicken on the menu twice a month and it sells out every time. People want comfort food.” He expects there will be adjustments to create a simpler menu that can more easily pivot to takeout should stricter social distancing guidelines resume. Arethusa is adapting to the times with ears open: “You can learn from what the customer is telling you in a different way than you used to think you could.”

Tom Truelove, owner of Truelove Farms, saw a huge increase in demand for pork and other meats as well as the aforementioned eggs—and being small actually helped. “A lot of it has to do with scalability, and the larger you get, the more your operations turn on key things working perfectly. If you’re trying to raise 10,000 pigs, you need them slaughtered on a specific date because you only have so much room. You’re out of luck if COVID shuts down slaughterhouses.” Even his farm wasn’t immune; he’s found it difficult to book space in a USDA-certified slaughterhouse because of these disruptions. But Truelove can be nimble if it needs to be. “We don’t have the scale or the profit but we’re more flexible and resilient. Small farms aren’t built or run with peak efficiency in mind. We try but they’re not such finely tuned machines… If one thing starts to go wrong, [we got] other things.” For him, delays on pork and beef don’t mean the chickens aren’t laying, and that will work for now. In the end, the pandemic has meant more business, not less, leading to hiring more staff and buying more packaging and safety equipment.

Packaging, it turns out, is a serious problem when redirecting product from wholesale to retail. “Institutions don’t get cartons of eggs, they get flats of eggs,” Horan offers as an example, adding that even just procuring the specific containers needed to make that kind of pivot is something “not everyone was able to do.” Waldingfield had already been phasing out restaurant contracts for a few seasons but still counted on some wholesale business, particularly venues that championed organic produce and were willing to pay a fair price for it. “It’s a real bummer,” Horan says. “Some of our biggest advocates are being hit hardest and won’t reopen. They live on such razor thin margins to begin with. Over the last couple years, we were pulling away from restaurants and supermarkets because we needed to go for the retail price to make it on our end. And yet there are a few restaurants I always sell to, because they advocate for what we do. They never balk at a price.”

Like Truelove, Horan says the operation has grown. “We’ve been able to employ and hire new employees, support fellow farmers by purchasing and reselling their products at our store, grow our business model, and we’ve always practiced this kind of seed-plant-harvest-repeat mentality. We grind it out.”

So far, customers seem interested in coming along for the ride. Horan says half of Waldingfield’s 2020 CSA members are new. With a steady supply of seasonal produce, from zucchini and kale to garlic scapes and sugar snap peas, they’re bound to eat well this season—and gain some peace of mind in the process.

Written by Allison Hadley. Images 1, 3 and 4 photographed by Allison Hadley. Image 2 photographed by Daniel Shkolnik..

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