When Farmers Need to Shelter in Place to Survive

May 29, 2020

Deciding whether or not to come to the farmers market is a choice no farmer takes lightly in these uncertain times. Even with the many safety precautions that markets are taking, market vendors and workers must put themselves on the frontlines to our feed our community.

Particularly for those who are older or immunocompromised—or caring for loved ones who are⁠⁠—coming to the market is fraught with health risks. But not coming to market means losing vital income, with deep impacts on one’s livelihood, workers, and business.

We checked in with a few of our longtime farmers and food makers who have been sheltering in place since the pandemic began to see how they are getting by, adapting, and planning for the future. These small, sustainable farms and food businesses need our support more than ever.

Janet Brown and Marty Jacobson, Allstar Organics

We haven’t been to the farmer market since the six-county lockdown. All our restaurant customers closed down, and that was a major part of our farm income. Our business has taken a hit, but we have also been incredibly lucky for a few lifelines we’ve been thrown. For example, CUESA has been putting us in the Farmers Market Box, and we have a little more business on our website than before.

We talk about coming back to the market every single day. We miss everyone a lot. But the TV, radio, newspapers, internet, and Kaiser texts are all warning us that it’s not safe for us yet. By us, I mean us old people. I never thought much about our age until three months ago, but now it’s all anyone can talk about. Since we’ve been away, the market has actually gotten much safer, which is encouraging. That makes us think we can come back at some point.

We are hardly thinking about the future. We can only think about staying in business today…harvesting today…selling today. For a small example, we had a big crop of green garlic. Market people and restaurants buy a lot. Not so much grocery stores. Suddenly we had no market for it. We took a chance and let it go to heading, and then found we could harvest heads and bunch them and sell them that way. It’s all about what will we do today to keep our people and pay our bills.

CUESA has been terrifically supportive, buying our produce for the farmers market box. I cried about it; I was so touched that anybody was even thinking about us at all. It was surprising and kind and real, and it gave us some hope out of nowhere. It was like, “Hey, maybe, just maybe, somehow we could get through this. Maybe it’s not ‘game over.’” New structures and new networks are being invented. It’s all about adapting and being aware that things are changing. It’s hard to accept so many variables and so much uncertainty as normal.

Support Allstar Organics through their online store.

Sally and Mike Hiebert, Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoked Salmon

We are very well, health-wise. Weird, warping, and anxiety-ridden times, but we’re okay. This is our 33rd year in business. We have age concerns with regard to the virus. The Cap’n is gonna be 67!

Every week we are looking at ways to re-open safely and practically. We’re talking to our San Francisco staff to see how we might manage opening up. Some of them also still have concerns about being out for an eight-hour day of exposure. Like CDC guidelines and Dr. Fauci’s guidance—it’s a cautious watch-and-wait for now. We all are looking at the phases of re-opening and watching to see what the fallout is from these first two weeks. With the pandemic in mind, we are wondering what kind of fishing year this is going to be for us, too.

We are at about 30% of our usual gross revenue. We are very grateful for the curbside pickup opportunity on Saturdays. And also for our mail-order business. The more of that, the better for us right now! It’s easy for our customers to use our website or to call or ">email us. We really appreciate that business.

Support Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoked Salmon through home delivery or Saturday pickup at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Dan Lehrer and Joanne Kruger, Little Apple Treats & Flatland Flower Farm

Overall, we are both fine. Our two businesses are both doing OK too, between wholesale sales and internet sales. We definitely miss the market, both in terms of income and community, but as the primary caregivers to Joanne’s 94-year-old mother, we can’t take the risk that we will pass COVID-19 on to her.

One of the most difficult things about this situation is being unable to plan, because there are so many unknowns. We are taking it week by week. 

We aren’t having visitors on the farm to buy directly from us, but encourage our regulars to order online for vinegars, shrubs, caramels, and granolas, and to find a local independent nursery in SF or the East Bay for our plant starts. 

Support Little Apple Treats through their online store. Find their plant starts at Sloat Garden Center in San Francsico, or Flowerland Nursery, Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, East Bay Nursery, Grand Lake Ace Hardware, or Thornhill Nursery in the East Bay.

Rick Lafranchi, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company

Our farmers market staff person has asthma and is concerned about coming in, and I am and 68 years old and diabetic. I’m in quite good health, but in the event that something did happen, there could be long-term damage.

Our cheese business took a hit initially. About 35 to 40 percent of our business that was restaurants and food service, which disappeared. But our retail and online sales have been strengthening. We’re not booming, but we’re holding our own. We have no idea what’s in store for the next six months and beyond. 

There are many safety practices we were already doing before the pandemic, and we’re doing more to keep our workers safe, spacing everyone apart and wearing masks. We’re looking for staff to cover the farmers market, so we can possibly coming back in a few weeks, but our health is most important right now.

Support Nicasio Valley Cheese Company through their online store or retail shop in Nicasio.

Lee James, Tierra Vegetables

We’re not going to have our 40th anniversary celebration this year, but we haven’t really canceled it. If we do, it’s going to be a lot different than what I imagined. I will be 68 in a few days. We are still extremely busy with planting and planning, and I don’t really know what to do about our restaurant plantings. I am still quite nervous about going back to market with all the exposure.

On Saturdays, I am at our farm stand all day, but it’s not nearly as long and grueling a day as market is. We are very short on water, but we are getting a lot more work done. It’s hard to keep up with payroll. This is the time of year when there’s a huge amount of work and usually not too much income. Sixty percent of our income from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is from restaurants and tourists, and having lost that makes for even less income. 

Right now we don’t have too much fresh product, and that’s pretty much what the regulars buy. We’re still trying to figure how much we should plant that the restaurants bought so much of. I miss my farmers market customers and the other growers, but I’m still quite leery of this virus. We will be back when we’ve got a good batch of carrots.

Visit the Tierra Vegetables farm stand in Santa Rosa.