GFB Certified Farm Markets adapt to serve customers during COVID-19
By Jennifer Whittaker, Georgia Farm Bureau
Photos by Jay Stone
As COVID-19 requires Georgians to practice social distancing and obey shelter-in-place orders, Georgia Farm Bureau Certified Farm Market owners continue to serve their communities. How the 78 farms enrolled in GFB’s CFM program are operating varies, but many are offering online or phone order options with curbside pick-up. Some are scheduling appointments for customers to shop and pick fruit.
After touching base with representatives of four CFMs, it’s clear market owners are prioritizing the safety of their customers and employees as they remain committed to getting the fresh food they’re growing to the public.
GFB CFM Coordinator Kelly Thompson encourages the public to consider shopping with a CFM in your area.
“During this time, let us challenge ourselves to intentionally support our local farms as they continue to work each day to provide a safe food supply for us,” Thompson said.
To find a CFM near you visit www.gfb.ag/cfm. Contact information for all farms in the program is provided so you can reach out to learn a farm’s current operating procedures and hours.
Asking for patience
“We’re trying to do our best to mitigate the risk while making sure we can keep our staff and guests who visit us safe,” said Jake Carter, of Southern Belle Farms in Henry County.
Pick-your-own strawberries usually account for 80% of sales at Southern Belle during the farm’s peak strawberry season from April to early June. The farm just started selling strawberries on April 6 and was about 10-12 days from going into the peak period.
Southern Belle will sell strawberries via curbside pickup and is limiting the number of customers allowed in their store through at least April 13 Carter said, while Georgia’s shelter-in-place order is in effect. He said the farm is evaluating the possibility of offering customers scheduled pick-your-own appointments with social distancing measures.
“We’re asking customers to be patient with us. Not just us, but any of the local farm markets they may visit. We’re all having to do things very differently and there will be a learning curve for us and our staff as we try new things,” Carter said.
With field trips for more than 15,000 students canceled due to the COVID-19 response, Southern Belle found itself with a surplus of strawberries above what it normally sells to customers through its farm store. One of the farm’s neighbors is a partial owner of Pretoria Fields, a craft brewery based in Albany, a Georgia epicenter of the virus.
Pretoria Fields is using its brewery to make hand sanitizer to help out. Carter’s neighbor wanted to do something specifically for his community, so, he bought about 11,000 gallons of strawberries from the Carters at cost-of-production price and will distribute them to health care workers in Henry County and surrounding areas.
“I won’t make money, but I won’t lose money on the strawberries that would have normally been picked during field trips and the crop won’t rot in the field,” Carter said.
Relying on local business to make up for lost field trips
At Southern Grace Farms in Berrien County, the McMillan Family’s opinion of the virus changed in a matter of days before the weekend of March 21-22 along with how it is operating its farm market and you-pick fruit patches (strawberries, blueberries and blackberries).
“There were positive cases of COVID-19 in the surrounding counties, but none in our own county at the time. Since U-Pick draws people from all over, we just didn't want to chance introducing the virus to our community. If you let people onto your farm but say you can't go on the playground and you can't use the picnic tables, you’re always going to have someone who doesn’t follow the rules,” said Jennifer McMillan, who handles food safety and agritourism for the farm. “We felt the safest way to protect our customers and community was to just shut everything down to the public.”
The McMillans opted to close their you-pick strawberry operation for the season and are selling their strawberries and novelty gift items curbside relying on online and phone orders from their website and Facebook page to attract customers. In a few weeks, blueberries will start ripening and after that blackberries.
McMillan said the farm’s market is experiencing less business.
“With the main attractions – our playground and u-pick patch - being closed, it's mainly local business,” McMillan said. You-pick sales normally account for 75% of their strawberry sales she said.
The farm has also lost revenue from school field trips it had booked for every weekday from March when schools shut down through the first two weeks in May. Fortunately, the farm doesn’t require the schools to prepay for the field trips, so while they have lost that income, the McMillans don’t have to issue refunds for the field trips. They have, however, had to refund families for canceled birthday parties.
This week, Southern Grace Farms is doing a brisk business as people prepare for Easter.
“Right now, people are buying items for Easter baskets, which has been great because we loaded up on candy and toys for field trips, so it gives us an outlet to sell some of that inventory,” McMillan said. “Shirts are always our most popular item, and handbags are pretty popular as well.”
Country store goes high-tech
Pittman Family Farms & Country Market in Toombs County, which specializes in a variety of farm-fresh produce, classic craft sodas and gift items, has been quick to adapt its operating procedures as COVID-19 recommendations have changed in recent weeks.
“After cases of COVID-19 started to increase in the U.S. and as we saw supplies vanish from the grocery stores, we knew that in order to stay open we would have to adjust and adjust quickly,” said Jonathan Pittman, manager of his family’s farm market. “I had already been working on our new website that would allow our customers from around the U.S.A. to quickly and easily order some of their favorite nonproduce items. When I saw the COVID-19 scare coming to our area, I began working overtime at night to get as many items and our produce items on the site."
Relying on Faith
Each of the market owners we spoke with shared how their faith is sustaining them and their families as they make their way through this uncertain time COVID-19 has brought.
We’re sharing them with you in hopes that they offer inspiration to another farm operator or customer who needs it.
“Our main worry right now is how the pandemic will affect our commercial blackberry crop. The fresh fruit market is uncertain. All we can do is pray about it and leave it up to God. We've seen bad times before and always came through them. We just have to trust that He will bring us through again.”
Southern Grace Farms
“It is definitely a different time, but like our customers all tell us, ‘Just keep going and keep faith in the LORD because he will guide us safely through any obstacle.”
Pittman Farms & Country Market
“We are all healthy, and we still have a job to do, which makes us feel so incredibly blessed.”
Thompson Farms: All Natural Pork
“My sister is a nurse. She’s one of the strongest people I know both physically & mentally, but the look I saw on her face Sunday knowing she was going back to work on the frontlines of this - We’ve got to be praying for our health care workers.”
Southern Belle Farms
Pittman said at first the site couldn’t handle the traffic it was getting. He quickly converted the site to a larger, more user-friendly site that could handle the traffic and keep up-to-date inventory reports.
Before the Pittmans went completely to online/phone orders with curbside pickup on March 21, they limited the number of people in their store to six at a time by having customers make shopping appointments online. Shoppers had 20-minute slots to shop. Then, the Pittmans had 15 minutes to sanitize door handles, cooler handles, shopping baskets, etc. before the next appointment time.
“This worked for a few days,” Pittman said. “We switched completely to curbside for multiple reasons. It was easier for our high-risk customers to shop, it made everyone more comfortable shopping that way, and we were able to offer more items that we normally don’t, like sugar, flour, salt, eggs, and popular dairy items by taking online orders. We are seeing more business and are getting new customers daily.”
CFM offers meat when grocery stores can’t
A lack of meat in grocery store coolers has sent more customers to Thompson Farms: All Natural Pork in Brooks County at a time when business is usually slow, Abby Thompson, the farm’s marketing manager, said.
“We are very thankful for the added business and the ability to work. Fresh, frozen items such as pork chops, link sausage, patty sausage and pork burgers have been moving quickly,” Thompson said. “But our smoked items aren’t far behind. We’re smoking a lot of hams right now because of Easter.”
Thompson said her family’s farm started offering curbside pickup March 19 for orders placed via the farm’s website or by phone after she noticed restaurants and stores in Thomasville and Valdosta offering this option.
“We want to keep both our employees and our customers safe. We realized that COVID-19 was a real threat, so we wanted to follow all necessary precautions,” Thompson said. “It also allows customers the added comfort of knowing they aren’t exposing themselves to all the people and germs associated with a grocery store chain.”
As of April 7, the Thompsons’ main wholesale customer, Whole Foods Market had also increased its usual order per week.
The Thompsons are giving back through their Plentiful Pig food donation program, which mainly serves Brooks, Thomas, Lowndes and Colquitt counties but has also helped organizations in Florida and North Georgia. Since COVID-19 began causing food insecurities in the U.S., the Thompsons have donated nearly 2,000 pounds of pasture raised pork.
At press time on April 8, GFB was aware that the following GFB CFM farms were offering some type of curbside pick-up. Other GFB CFMs may also be offering curbside pickup or following social distancing procedures. PLEASE visit www.gfb.ag/cfm to access a list of all 78 participating farms and contact the farm you’re interested in visiting to learn how they are serving their customers. Many of the CFMS farms are equipped to ship items.
•Jaemor Farms Banks Co.
•Mountain Valley Farm Store
•Nu Sunrise Farms
•R & A Orchards
•Southern Belle Farm
• Dickey Farms
•Greenway Farms Market
•The Shed at Fitzgerald Fruit Farms
•Ganas Pecan Co. (more than pecans)
•Pittman’s Country Market
•Raisin Cane & Kim’s Kitchen (same farm but 2 locations like Jaemor)
•Ochlockonee Ridge Farms
•Southern Grace Farms