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Small Farms Adapt As Coronavirus Pandemic Shortens St. Louis Farmers Market Season

Erin Bernsen, a co-owner of Legacy Circle Farms, gets ready to place an online order in the car of a customer. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the farm did not have a large online presence.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Erin Bernsen, a co-owner of Legacy Circle Farms, gets ready to place an online order in the car of a customer. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the farm did not have a large online presence.

Saturday was supposed to be the first day of the farmers market in Tower Grove Park, one of the largest in the region, but St. Louis’ stay-at home order dashed hopes of the spring market season beginning on time.

The delay comes on top of the cancellation of the last weeks of the winter market season, meaning the small producers who depend on farmers markets to survive are taking a double hit. Farmers that sold to restaurants are facing even more difficulties. But they’re adapting, as they always have.

“When you’re in this business, you know that you’re going to have to adapt and change to whatever Mother Nature brings you,” said Erin Bernsen of Legacy Circle Farms. “And this year, Mother Nature brought us the closing of farmers markets because of the coronavirus.” 

Bernsen grows fruits, greens and root vegetables at the farm, located about 50 miles south of St. Louis in Londell, Missouri. Before the pandemic, the vast majority of her sales came from farmers markets in Franklin County.

“They were the main way that we were getting our customers,” she said. “Up until now, we weren’t really online.”

But the coronavirus forced Bernsen and her husband, Tyler, to pivot quickly. They found online sales software they liked and within days set up a website for themselves and four neighboring farms. Customers order online and then pick up their vegetables, flowers and other items at seven locations along Interstate 44. Home delivery is available for orders above $75.

The switch to fully online sales was easier for Autumn Sij, who runs Such and Such Farm in DeSoto, Missouri, raising everything from goats to squash. It was also a more necessary transition.

“Fifty percent of our sales are to restaurants, and the other half are for farmers markets, so when everything hit all at once, we were like, 'Oh, no,'” Sij said. “It felt like we were re-creating our business every 24 hours.”

A double whammy

Sij was at a farmers meeting for a winter market when word came out that the rest of the indoor season was canceled. Shortly after that, she said, restaurants were shuttered to all but takeout customers.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “We can’t slow down the farm, and we can’t really shutter our doors, because we still have animals that need to be fed and taken care of and the plants keep growing, and so we have to keep moving forward.”

Like so many other farms, Such and Such is trying to stay afloat by offering pickups. Every Saturday, Sij or her husband, Dave Blum, drive about 50 miles one way to the parking lot of World’s Fair Donuts in the Southwest Garden neighborhood to meet customers.  

To make up for lost revenue from the cancellation of winter farmers markets and a delayed start to the spring season, Such and Such Farm is now offering pickups in the parking lot of World's Fair Donuts.
Such and Such Farm via Facebook

“We’ve been able to get the word through social media about our new operations, and through that we’ve been able to meet new customers. It’s honestly been really great,” Sij said, but added that interacting on Facebook or Instagram is not the same as greeting the customers in person.

A different farmers market

Tower Grove Farmers Market is eyeing a spring season that starts in early May.

“Things are going to be very different,” said co-founder Patrick Horine. “It’s not going to be the thousands of people shopping. We’re going to have to lay things out very differently and control crowd size.”

But even the slightest delay in the spring season is tough for vendors. So Horine adapted, setting up a weekly home delivery of boxes that feature whatever the farms have available. Those boxes have sold out every week.

Even after the outdoor market opens, Horine plans to continue with delivery options to help his vendors make up the gap from the shortened season.

“We know them really well, we have a lot of respect for them, we know how hard they work, and we always want to help them do the best they can,” he said.

Farmers say they miss interacting with customers for longer than the 30 seconds it takes to pick up an order. And their margins are so thin that any disruption in business boosts the risk of a farm closing. But many see a silver lining in the current situation.

The new model means less of Legacy Circle’s product goes to waste because customers are ordering the greens before they are harvested, Bernsen said.

“At the farmers market, you harvest as much as you can so you can show your abundance at your table, and you hope that it doesn’t wilt,” she said.

Sij believes the increased number of people eating at home will steer people to better food.

“I’m really hoping this kind of gets people back to basics about appreciating where their food comes from and having a better connection to it,” she said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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