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Local Food & Farm Guide: The pandemic spurred a growth in farm stands

BLUE LEDGE FARM'S first farm stand was quite simple.

When we needed our local community to maintain our business through a scary time, our community was there to support us.
— Hannah Sessions, Blue Ledge Farm

Since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, farms have had to pivot their businesses as markets closed and new pandemic restrictions were imposed. The shift from selling wholesale to direct to consumer inspired many local producers to create farm stands to sell their products and products from neighboring farms for convenient one-stop shopping.

As food distribution chains became unstable, some supermarket shelves emptied, and wholesale accounts disappeared, local farmers saw a drastic increase in direct-to-consumer demand. This new uptick in demand was due to a few pandemic-related factors: a preference for contactless pickup, limiting visits to the grocery store, and a general distrust in the safety and reliability of the global supply chain.

Hannah Sessions at Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury reported that their online sales increased by 800% at the beginning of the pandemic, evidence of this new surge in demand for local products. Blue Ledge created a farm stand last spring in response to losing valuable wholesale accounts and this new spike in consumer demand. “The pandemic was the major reason we decided to give a farm stand a try,” Hannah said. “Honestly, the idea of an on-farm stand never would have occurred to us had necessity not dictated it.”

Blue Ledge Farm’s first farm stand was simple; their cheese was put in a cooler with ice packs at the end of their driveway for contactless pick-up. They quickly outgrew the small cooler and built a tiny hut with a mini-fridge. This is how they operated their farm stand for the rest of 2020. “Business on our quiet dirt road was more robust than we anticipated. On busy weekend days we might need to restock the mini-fridge three times a day,” Hannah said. In 2021 Blue Ledge graduated to an 8-foot-by-6-foot shed with a full-size cooler and a full line of merchandise and cheese accompaniments and an honor system for sales.

Although Blue Ledge Farm has largely recovered its lost wholesale accounts over the past year, and sales from the farm stand are only a small portion of the overall business, Hannah and husband Greg Bernhardt don’t anticipate closing the farm stand. “The farm stand has brought us a lot of joy at relatively low investment. We like that we can offer a direct farm experience to people as well as sell our cheese at “on farm” competitive prices to local folks and tourists,” Hannah said.

Another farm that responded to challenges imposed by the pandemic is Frog Hollow Farms in Hubbardton. This small family farm, owned by Jason and Janis Reinke, started their organic produce and specialty food operation in March 2020 while adapting to the COVID-19 shutdown. “Farmers markets restricted the number of vendors able to participate, and as a new farm, we couldn’t get into any busy Saturday markets,” Janis said. So Frog Hollow Farms turned an old tack room into a farm stand in hopes of selling their produce and specialty foods to the local community.

Janis found that the Hubbardton community was in need of a local “micro food hub” that aggregated local products at one convenient retail location. “People wanted access to fresh local food but were having to travel 20-30 minutes to access it. We listened to this need and began to aggregate not only other local farms’ products, but products from small batch makers throughout Vermont and the country.”

Farm stands aggregating products from other local producers is part of a wider trend happening in Vermont. McKenna Hayes, the Food Hub Co-Director at Food Connects in Brattleboro, confirmed that the biggest growth this year has been selling to new farm stands around the Northeast region that are selling other producers’ products. Food Connects nearly doubled its revenue in 2020.

Looking ahead to the coming season, Hannah will continue to sell her cheese to a growing number of other farm stands in addition to her own farm stand. Janis is continuously looking to aggregate more local products while increasing the size of her farm stand. “We are working to raise funds for a freezer so we can begin selling meat, and are looking to add milk and other dairy options.”

The pandemic has highlighted how resilient farmers can be during a time of crisis, and how community members can rally to support local businesses, whose owners and employees are often their neighbors. Hannah reflected, “We feel a lot of loyalty to our customers; when we needed our local community to maintain our business through a scary time, our community was there to support us. If we can be a part of what makes Addison County a unique and welcoming place then we should commit ourselves to doing that for as long as it works!”

Visit Hannah and Janis this summer:

Blue Ledge Farm: 2001 Old Jerusalem Road, Salisbury, or blueledgefarm.com

Frog Hollow Farm: 924 Frog Hollow Road, Hubbardton, or froghollowvt.com

Use the EatLocalVT app to search for farm stands in an area near you: acornvt.org/app.

Amanda Landry is an ACORN Board member, and co-owner of Cream Hill Stock Farm, along with her husband Wallace. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Community Development Policy and Practice at UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy and has been researching the effects of the pandemic on our local food economy.

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