Fulfilling a Social Contract

A Viral Carrot Sale During a Pandemic Reveals Local Food’s Potential…& Limits

In mid-March, when it was becoming clear the COVID-19 pandemic was going to change the way food is procured in the U.S. and beyond, the owners of Open Hands Farm placed five bags of carrots and a money box in their driveway. Farm owners Erin and Ben Doherty weren’t quite prepared for what happened next.

“We had cars coming in and out of the driveway constantly for two days,” recalls Ben. “We would be eating lunch and cars are still coming in. Somebody had to leave lunch to go restock the five bags out there. It was totally amazing.”

During a hectic 24-hour-period, the Northfield, Minn., farm sold 9,500 pounds of carrots to over 250 households. The Open Hands “viral carrot” incident didn’t happen by accident — it’s an example of what can happen when a farm, suddenly faced with a vaporized market, taps into a network of people who in turn pass on the good word to all their connections. At a time when a superbug is turning society upside down, it’s the ultimate feel-good story that reveals just how hungry, so to speak, people are for local food produced using regenerative methods. It’s also an example of how a smaller, more diversified operation is nimble enough to navigate through crisis-ridden waters while bigger, industrialized operations flounder.

But this situation also points to the lack of resiliency in the overall food system, and the limits to relying on people coming together to support a farm in crisis.

“It’s a heartwarming event that’s given us comfort in all this uncertainty,” says Ben. “But if everything continues to be shut down, we’re going to be looking at a lot of produce that we need to find homes for.”

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A Reliable Market

The irony of the situation that sent Open Hands scrambling for emergency buyers is that it was the result of one of their most reliable market outlets falling through. Besides operating a 200-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise, the 15-acre certified organic operation also sells to distributors and processors in the Twin Cities region. And in 2015, they got into the farm-to-school market in a big way when they started supplying schools in Minneapolis. They also sell to the two private colleges in Northfield — Saint Olaf and Carleton — as well as to other schools through the Good Acre, a Twin Cities nonprofit that works with local food distribution, among other things. Overall, about one-third of Open Hands’ market is school-based.

Ben says farm-to-school has been a good fit for them. The farm added at least 30% to their production and increased storage capacity just to meet the demand from schools. That market has resulted in them adding two more fulltime employees during the growing season and allowed Open Hands to pay a good wage. The farm has regularly supplied eight different kinds of vegetables to schools, including carrots, cabbages, beets, and kale. Fall is their busiest time with school markets, but storage crops like carrots offer a way to move product into cafeterias over the winter as well.

Ben says in normal times, schools are a consistent market, in contrast to farmers’ markets and restaurants, which can be “notorious” for fluctuating in their demand. Open Hands has a letter of commitment with schools; it’s not a legally-binding contract, but it provides certain guarantees.

“With schools, if somebody tells us they’re going to buy 500 pounds a week, they pretty much do that,” Ben says.

But a school without students is a school without a sit-down lunch program. So in early March, Erin and Ben watched with concern as it became clear Minnesota Governor Tim Walz was going to shut down schools as part of a wider initiative to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many schools offer “grab-and-go” food packs to students, but fresh, whole produce does not lend itself well to being included in these mobile meals.

The farmers were particularly concerned about their inability to move the rest of the carrots they had harvested last fall and put in storage. This is a big crop for them: Open Hands harvests about 100,000 pounds of carrots annually, and Ben estimates that not having schools buy up what they had left would cost $10,000 in sales.

So, on March 17, the farmers posted a letter on Facebook and sent it via e-mail to their CSA members. Their lead sentence was eye-catching: “It is, despite shortages of other things, time to hoard carrots!” They went on to explain that during the next few days, they would be placing 25-pound bags of carrots on a table in their driveway. They were offering a discount off the regular price, and people could leave cash or a check in a money box; there was also an option to pay online. Buyers were asked not to enter other buildings on the farm and only five bags of carrots would be available at a time to avoid crowding. That first day, Erin wondered aloud if they’d only sell a couple bags.

It turns out the farmers misjudged the power of social media and word-of-mouth, especially when it’s fueled by people committed to local, sustainably-produced food.

“The letter made it clear they were nervous,” says Jerri Hurlbutt, a freelance editor living in Saint Paul.

Hurlbutt grew up on a dairy farm near Northfield and has been a longtime Open Hands CSA member. But she admits she had never thought much about how critical wholesale markets were to the farm’s success until she saw Ben and Erin’s note. Just as she supports the CSA concept of farmers and eaters sharing in the rewards and risks of production, Hurlbutt saw this as an opportunity for the wider community to make sure this crisis didn’t decimate an important business in the area. She posted the letter to a Carleton College listserv she belongs to.

“The response was immediate, because they wanted to support local business,” Hurlbutt recalls. “I had a couple people write back and say thanks for giving us a chance to support local food.”

The carrots were moved through wider networks as well. Land Stewardship Project staffers Elizabeth Makarewicz and Scott DeMuth heard about the carrots and helped pass on a significant number of bags beyond the Northfield area. Makarewicz distributed around 1,000 pounds in Minneapolis after they were dropped off at the LSP office there. DeMuth, who lives in western Minnesota’s Yellow Medicine County, got over 600 pounds to distribute; it turns out farmer Peg Furshong, who is also the operations and program director for Clean Up the River Environment in Montevideo, was passing through the Northfield area and was able to haul them to western Minnesota.

Doherty says overall, they estimate one-fifth of the carrot buyers were people Open Hands had not had contact with before. It’s clear that given the size of the portions, more than just 250 households benefited from the sale — several split up the bags and shared them with friends and neighbors.

“People don’t realize what a 25-pound bag of carrots looks like,” said Makarewicz with a laugh; in response, she started a Facebook page devoted to carrot recipes.

Beyond Viral

The Open Hands farmers are the first to say that despite how inspiring it was to sell over 9,000 pounds of carrots in a flash sale, it’s nothing to base a long-term sustainable marketing strategy on. A lot of farmers who market via short supply chains are thinking the same thing, says Helen Schnoes, a regional marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

Schnoes was hired in November as a result of a farm-to-school bill pushed by LSP and its allies during the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature. One focus of her work is to help cultivate more efficient relationships between farmers and schools. A 2015 USDA survey showed that a little over 1,000 Minnesota schools were buying at least some food from area farmers, which represented over $12 million invested in local food. Slightly more than half of Minnesota school districts buy local food, a sign that there is more potential for making schools and other institutions consistent customers for farmers. Because of the 2019 legislation, an existing MDA program was expanded to allow the reimbursement of schools for purchases from local farmers. Schnoes is also working to help farmers access wholesale markets in general.

During the past few months, Schnoes and other MDA staffers have been scrambling to collect information from farmers about the best way to help them deal with major disruptions to their marketing and distribution system. Farmers responding to a joint MDA-Minnesota Grocers Association survey expressed significant concern about the long-term implications of the pandemic, especially as the harvest season approaches.

One thing that’s become clear is that one-time bulk purchases won’t cut it — farmers need consistent, repeated sales. The MDA is also hearing about innovative ways farmers and others are working around the pandemic to get food to consumers safely. Options such as online ordering, pre-ordering farmers’ markets items, drive-through pick-ups, and doorstep delivery are being ramped up.

“I’m really inspired by the creativity of farmers,” says Schnoes. “We’re learning every day, just like everyone else.”

One advantage operations like Open Hands have is that they are small and diverse enough to pivot when a major disruption appears — larger, more monolithic operations simply aren’t as flexible. That has become clear already in states like Florida and California, where mega-vegetable operations have been forced to plow under produce because of lost food service markets. About 40% of this country’s fresh produce goes to restaurants, institutions, and other “food service” outlets; overall, this sector represents a quarter of the food consumed in the U.S., according to Politico.

“In local and regional food systems, that’s an asset — nimbleness and creativity,” says Schnoes. “Ben and Erin were able to tap into a different market in a short amount of time. If you have different networks, that really helps.”

A Linked Food Chain

Produce farmers in Minnesota benefit from the fact that through the MDA and the University of Minnesota, there are resources available for making sure food is handled safely on the farm before it gets to the consumer, says Doherty. With a little tweaking, he’s confident Open Hands can keep its food handling system safe, even in a pandemic. But, he concedes, this is all new territory.

As the growing season advanced and questions about the availability of food service markets remained, Open Hands was considering options like expanding the number of CSA shares it offers and modifying how the produce is delivered.

“Sanitizing and things like that are relatively easy — the social distancing is a bigger marketing challenge,” he says.

There’s no doubt the pandemic triggered a higher demand for locally-produced food this spring, especially as people become reliant on home cooking. Some CSA farms were experiencing increased sign-ups, and many direct-to-consumer meat producers were busier than ever. But it was unclear if that love for local was just a spring fling.

“We need people to keep showing up,” says Doherty. “If there’s cheap produce rolling in from California, and if grocery stores are still able to stock their shelves with that, will there be increased demand for local?”

And another issue has emerged: The pandemic has revealed how interconnected everything is in our food system. Some farmers may be able to adjust to a new marketing and distribution climate, but the schools, grocery stores, and restaurants they sell to must also adapt — and remain open.

“That speaks to the systems side of local and regional food systems,” says the MDA’s Schnoes. “We’re all in this together.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.