This season has brought new risks and huge challenges for Vermont farmers selling their produce. With many farmers markets and restaurants remaining closed due to COVID-19, farmers have had to adapt to a new retail environment. Megan Bookless, Farm Manager at ShakeyGround Farm, has risen to the challenge by setting up different sales systems with safety protocols while meeting customers’ needs and expectations for local fresh food.
ShakeyGround Farm is a small diversified farm offering grass-fed meats, pastured poultry, and certified organic produce in Charlotte, Vermont. Megan took on farm management at ShakeyGround Farm in April 2018 with Becca Burke joining her in 2019 as Assistant Farm Manager. Since last year, Megan has been learning about the whole process of managing a small farm as a business with long term sustainability and profitability in mind as part of NOFA’s Farm Beginnings program.
While Megan and Becca hadn’t managed a farm together before this past year, the duo rose quickly to multiple challenges of running a new business amid a pandemic. As Megan describes in responding to COVID-19, “it’s a crazy time of year anyway. Things are ramping up. In early spring, we could manage smaller orders via an online store on our website. Then demand picked up for local food, so we brought in other farms’ produce to supplement our own. It was important to us to be able to meet a need we were seeing in our community. At the same time, we were sending out new instructions about pick-up dates, times, and safety protocols based on recommendations from the state.”
Becca Burke, ShakeyGround Farm, Charlotte, Vermont
Megan found that getting people accustomed to on-line ordering when they were used to ShakeyGround’s self-serve farm stand was more time-consuming than she expected. Describing the situation, she said, “I was spending most of my days answering phones and responding to texts and e-mails, because we wanted to be as accessible as possible but during that time we’re also starting to get busier in preparing for the main growing and grazing sesason. ” At first, Megan would accommodate every request and explain and almost apologize to customers. Now instead, instructions are clear—please place order online.
During the growing season in normal times, ShakeyGround’s farm stand had been open as self-service seven days a week, sun up to sun down. “The hardest thing to change was not allowing people the freedom to pick what they want, when they want at their convenience. It doesn’t feel good to restrict access to local food,” Megan says. On the other hand, Megan says, “When people order online, then you can harvest exactly what you need to fill demand. There’s less waste and we can be more efficient, we’re meeting the actual need, not our perception of what our customers want.”
Over the past couple of months, ShakeyGround has developed a system where people feel comfortable shopping—with no crowds so there is ample social distancing, no cash handling, and minimal contact surfaces. The farmstand door is open on pick-up dates and every item is bagged and every order is pre-packaged. The only touch surface is the handle on one cooler door.
Megan is moving animals every day so having people order online has been helpful in allowing her more time for her farming tasks while also helping with tracking her inventory. Megan explains the importance of the new social distancing for her as much as her customers, “I can’t do my job if I’m sick and with a two-person crew for most of the week, it’s as important for the viability of our business as it is for the health of our customers that we’re following all recommendations for staying safe and healthy.”
The farm’s production plan for this year was based on three people, but with the COVID crisis, the latest hire was postponed until the end of May. Thankfully, Meg Mass, a Huntington resident with a small farm is helping a couple days a week. Like many small farms, ShakeyGround relies on support from off-farm income during the winter months. With business closures and restrictions, that supplementary income was not reliable enough to commit to hiring earlier in the season. ShakeyGround Farm is owned by David Beckwith, but Megan explains that the aim is to have the farm support the salaries and overhead associated with the farm business while David retains ownership. Megan and Becca are working towards financial viability with a five-year plan.
Last year, Megan and Becca put in place risk management plans which have helped them with the new reality of farming during a pandemic. In the fall, they both took the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Safety Training facilitated by UVM Extension and UNH Extension to learn how to minimize risks. With the organic certification process for produce but not animals, Becca and Megan were already conscious of maintaining separate areas for gardens and grazing, no shared equipment between livestock and produce operations to prevent cross-contamination, and good hygiene including surface cleaning, keeping containers separate, and maintaining safe storage temperatures and storage methods for produce
What was new for Megan and Becca was wearing masks. They have been following recommendations from the CDC, and additionally, they were wearing gloves in the early days of the pandemic. While wearing gloves is not necessary outside of cleaning and healthcare requirements, Megan found that people feel most comfortable seeing her and Becca use gloves and masks for harvesting as well as washing and packing fresh produce.
Other unanticipated additional expenses have been the packaging. Pre-packaging has meant using more packaging than would typically be used and putting more produce in plastic bags. ShakeyGround, like almost all other produce retailers, have not been accepting containers or boxes for reuses. In addition, items which would have been sold in bulk are instead bagged in smaller units after washing
While extremely busy, Megan is relieved that the online orders are starting to fill the gap from the hiatus in farmer’s markets. But she does miss face-to-face interactions with customers and says, “If the market is able to open we’d be excited to continue to be a part of it, albeit facetime at a distance. We know that people like to ask us questions on how to prepare different produce and it’s exciting to share information about new varieties we’re growing.”
ShakeyGround is adapting to the new normal of a pandemic because its business model doesn’t rely heavily on wholesale and restaurant accounts. Its retail model of about 40 percent farmstand, and 50 percent farmers market has no more than 10 percent small wholesale. With the recent decision to cancel the Shelburne Farmer’s Market for the 2020 Season, ShakeyGround is working closely with near-by retailers such as Shelburne Market, the Old Brick Store, Rise N’Shine and Philo Ridge Farm to get their produce to more customers. They’re also offering a “ShakeyShare” which is a weekly CSA of sorts – no upfront payment or commitment but a similar, pre-packed farmer-selected assortment of fresh produce each week.
Silver lining to Cloud of COVID-19
“We are seeing people order online who have never done it before and never purchased from us before. Small local farms are being valued as essential in a way I hadn’t seen before with people seemingly placing more value on local food. We’ve definitely seen an increase in early season sales. People were excited about getting fresh greens early in the season, and we’ve seen a huge increase in meat sales. We’re sold out of chicken and beef until early August”
Systems to keep in place as Vermont recovers
ShakeyGround will continue its on-line ordering with many people now enjoying the convenience of easily picking-up a pre-packed bag which they’ll continue through the Fall and hope to eventually open the stand up again for walk-in shopping as safety recommendations from the state are adjusted . “It’s an interesting dance trying to make things more convenient for customers without increasing our hours in front of computer when we need to get to the physical farm work outside.”
ShakeyGround pastures, Charlotte, Vermont
As for safety, Megan says, “we ‘ll continue wearing masks to harvest, wash, and pack fresh produce until it’s no longer a recommendation and the glove wearing will depend on the comfort of our community. If us packing produce with gloves makes our customers more comfortable we’re happy to do that but the recommendation from the CDC and the state continues to be focused on frequent and thorough hand washing as more effective than gloves. However, anxiety is already so high, people shouldn’t have to be anxious about local food. We’re happy to answer any questions our customers or potential customers have about how their food is being handled.
Megan and Becca’s message: Buy Local. Live Well. Be Kind
Full disclosure: Suzy Hodgson has been ordering and enjoying ShakeyGround’s weekly vegetable box for the past month.