During the global pandemic many regional farmers have shifted to online sales and home delivery
Photography by Ziggy Mack
When Rose Creek Farms’ Ray Tyler and his family were planting crops at their Selmer, Tennessee, farm last fall, they did so with home delivery in mind.
Little did he know at the time that he was setting his farm up to succeed in the face of a global pandemic.
Tyler previously had sold at farmers markets and had supplied some grocery stores and restaurants with produce, but he was planning to shift to a model of online ordering and home delivery in 2020.
“We had dabbled some with home delivery already, but it was very small. When we made our plan for 2020, we knew we wanted to expand home delivery,” says Tyler.
“We started the year with 20 orders a week, and we had a goal to get to 40 a week by the end of 2020.”
Then, in March, COVID-19 was making its way across the United States. Panic ensued, and some consumers began stockpiling food and supplies in preparation to stay at home for the foreseeable future. That left many other consumers faced with empty grocery store shelves and the prospect of food scarcity. As people attempted to reduce their exposure risk, home delivery of groceries and takeout meals exploded.
By early May, Rose Creek had far exceeded their delivery goal, with about 140 customers requesting delivery each week.
“When the lockdown started, we began offering free home delivery,” Tyler says. “Previously, we were charging a $5 delivery fee. But we knew a lot of people couldn’t leave their homes, and we didn’t want the price of delivery to be a turnoff for people during this time.”
While Rose Creek was already set up for deliveries, most local farmers weren’t selling online at all. Although the year-round Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market continued to stay open, many customers were asking for home delivery. Some farmers didn’t feel safe exposing their workers with face-to-face sales, and others thought a delivery model would be a more responsible choice.
A national trend
Now a number of regional farms, including Tubby Creek Farm and Alpha Omega Veterans Urban Farm, have shifted their business model to offer home delivery. Memphis Tilth’s Bring It Food Hub, which sources food from a number of regional farmers for its community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, is also offering home delivery and saw an exponential rise in subscriptions for its spring 2020 season.
Mid-South farms are not unique in these shifts. They’re part of a national trend. “Small farms are rushing to adapt, with many pivoting from supplying restaurants, specialty shops, and schools — many are closed now — to selling directly to customers,” reported The Washington Post. “They are shifting to new ways of interacting, including no-touch deliveries and drive-through pickups.”
National Public Radio recently reported on the rise of CSA popularity across the country. “From California to Maine, the movement known as community supported agriculture (CSA) is booming. … CSA programs almost everywhere report a surge in memberships and growing waiting lists,” said the article.
Rose Creek: Reliable farmers
“Seeing the produce gone from the stores helped spur this,” Tyler says. “Every grocery store has a three-day supply. If that gets disrupted by a surge, it’s going to be gone for awhile.”
“People are taking responsibility into their own hands and saying, ‘We need a farmer who will deliver to our door no matter what.’”
That’s the reason longtime Rose Creek Farms customer Linda Moore of Memphis is now ordering online from Tyler’s farm. Moore has been shopping with Rose Creek for several years and loves their spring selection of kale, broccoli, and hard-to-find items like dandelion greens.
“I would prefer to not have to depend on the grocery stores, especially with the experience we’ve had with the pandemic. Grocery stores haven’t had certain things, and our eyes have been opened. I like to support people doing things locally and small businesses. I believe that’s the way,” Moore says.
Although Tyler still sells in-person at the Franklin Farmers Market in Franklin, Tennessee, he now runs an online store, where his offerings have included peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, radishes, carrots, beets, herbs, and more. Rose Creek also offers a seasonal farm bag with a farmer-selected grab bag of produce.
Customers select what they want, and Rose Creek’s full-time driver delivers orders once a week in a wide geographic area that includes Memphis, Germantown, Collierville, Jackson, and Selmer, Tennessee, and Corinth and Olive Branch in Mississippi.
Although the new online business model is doing better than he’d planned for, Tyler believes they have the infrastructure to grow from 140 customers a week to 500 weekly customers. But to do that, he says he’d like to focus more on sales of the seasonal farm bag over individual orders.
“The logistics of managing the details for individual orders is a bit much for a small, family-owned operation,” Tyler says.
Tubby Creek: Learning logistics
Josephine and Randy Alexander of Tubby Creek Farm in Ashland, Mississippi, have learned a thing or two about managing logistics in the last few months. For the past nine seasons, Tubby Creek has divided their business between in-person sales at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market and subscriptions to their CSA program, which were available at centralized pickup points. When the pandemic hit, the couple quickly made the decision to shift completely to online sales and home deliveries.
“We thought that, since we could do that, we should,” says Josephine. “We know not all farmers are in a position to do that. A lot of people are still selling at the market.”
The couple set up an online store, where customers can choose from a wide array of goods, which have included kohlrabi, turnips, honey, all manner of greens, and several cuts of goat meat.
They hired three delivery drivers to drop off their 100 CSA shares and the individual orders from their online store. Josephine drives the orders to Memphis and disperses them among the drivers, who then deliver to downtown, Midtown, East Memphis, Collierville, Germantown, and Cordova.
“We always thought home delivery wasn’t viable and was too expensive, and we were happy with the system we had,” Josephine says.
They didn’t charge for delivery during the pandemic, but some customers offered to pay for themselves as well as pay it forward. Customers were also given the option to tip their delivery drivers via Venmo.
“We feel pretty lucky because we were already in a position where we were direct marketing to our customers,” Josephine says. “I know it’s been harder on farmers who were doing 100 percent in restaurant sales.”
“We feel very fortunate that we could continue to work and do what we think is important.”
Alpha Omega: Quick transitions
Like Tubby Creek, Alpha Omega Veterans Urban Farm in Memphis also had to make a quick transition with their sales model.
When the pandemic hit, farm manager Chris Peterson says they made a decision overnight to shift from selling in person at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market to selling exclusively through home delivery.
Alpha Omega Veterans Services, Inc., offers housing and rehabilitation services for military veterans who are experiencing homelessness or suffer from mental health disorders. The veterans are offered horticulture therapy and culinary education by working on the two-acre Alpha Omega Veterans Urban Farm, a partnership with Memphis Tilth. Half of what is grown feeds the veterans who live in Alpha Omega housing, and the other half is sold at the farmers market to sustain the farming program.
“Most of the guys who live on-site at Alpha Omega are Vietnam-era or Korea-era veterans who have some kind of health condition. Some of the guys work at the farmers market, and we decided it wasn’t worth the risk to residents to go out in the public, especially early on when no one could find masks and gloves,” says Peterson.
Alpha Omega’s farm went from barely having a social media presence before the pandemic to operating an online store—offering things like spinach, lettuce, turnips, and other greens—within a week.
“One thing that’s really struck me is how much work it’s taken to do this. If we had decided last November that we were going to add an online store and do home deliveries, we could have pulled it off more easily,” Peterson says.
“But that quick turnaround has been sort of stressful because we’re already in the most stressful time of year to be a farmer.”
Staffers who were previously working with the farm’s educational programming, which has been scaled back for now, are making deliveries every Friday. But some weeks are so busy they require even more. “It’s all hands on deck, and everyone who works there is doing a delivery,” he says.
“Since we’re in town, and we’re an urban farm, there’s no real barrier for us to deliver. There’s not a long drive to get to people’s houses.”
They’re not doing a CSA subscription at this time, but, if they’d had the lead time, Peterson would have preferred that model over online ordering.
“It’s been a challenge selling online,” Peterson says. “I go in on Monday and estimate what we have available. And demand is what it is at the end of the week. Some weeks, it’s really overwhelming, and I think we’re going to run out of stuff. And, some weeks, I’m panicked because we have too much stuff in the fields that needs to be harvested.”
Despite the challenges, they’re gaining new customers who don’t normally shop with them at the Cooper-Young farmers market. “We have kept some loyal customers, but the growth has been in people who wouldn’t traditionally be at our booth,” he says. “People are excited to get high-quality, fresh stuff delivered to their door.”
Wholesale orders are also picking up. The Alpha Omega farm sells produce to Bring It Food Hub, which has seen massive growth in subscriptions since the pandemic began.
“We delivered 260 bunches of radishes to Bring It,” says Peterson. “It was the most radishes I’ve ever seen in one place. That was all of our radishes for the next 30 days.”
Bring It: Rapid growth, home deliveries
At the start of the spring 2020 season, Bring It Food Hub (the CSA program of Memphis Tilth) had 35 customers signed up for their weekly CSA share, which features produce and goods from a mix of local and regional farmers. By early May, 300 people had signed up.
“At one time, we were growing so fast it was hard for us to tell farmers what quantities to harvest,” says Mia Madison, Memphis Tilth executive director.
“But everyone ramped up, and the farms provided some excellent quality produce.”
Bring It has also begun offering home delivery for some customers.
“When the coronavirus hit, our CSA shares were available at 15 drop sites across Memphis. But we had not provided home delivery until a St. Jude employee asked if we could deliver her bag to her home. She didn’t want to compromise herself by going out into the public,” says Madison.
At the time, some of Bring It’s drop sites were beginning to temporarily close under Mayor Jim Strickland’s safer-at-home order. So Bring It began offering home delivery to all customers within a two-mile radius of a drop site that had closed. Customers near a drop site that’s still open can also request delivery.
They were delivering between 95 and 125 CSA shares each week, with the rest still being picked up at drop sites that remained open. There’s a $10 delivery fee, but Madison says they’ve waived that fee for customers who live in food-insecure areas.
Subscriber Melissa Bamford has been an off-and-on customer with Bring It for about five years. At the start of the pandemic, Bamford signed up for the spring season to ensure she and husband Anthony York would be guaranteed access to fresh produce. She opted for delivery to their Midtown home after discovering all nearby drop sites were either closed or full (Bring It caps each drop site at 50 orders).
So far, the couple has enjoyed lettuce, Swiss chard, strawberries, sweet potatoes, and garlic in their deliveries. They were surprised to see some shares included bags of popcorn, grits, and rice.
Bamford, a University of Memphis professor currently working from home, says that, while home delivery has been convenient during the pandemic, she probably will go back to picking up her share at a drop site when she returns to work on campus.
“Right now, I’m home, so I know I’ll be here when the delivery gets here. They deliver on Friday afternoons when I normally teach a class. I don’t want stuff to sit out and get hot in the summer, and I also don’t want it to be taken by porch thieves,” says Bamford.
Madison says Bring It will evaluate whether or not to continue delivery in the summer. She says her goal is to keep delivery going, but, since Bring It is also expanding drop sites, she says they’ll have to determine if delivery is a necessity for some customers.
Embracing new norms
Tyler of Rose Creek Farms says delivery is “the new norm” for his business.
“This is allowing us to grow a lot more variety,” he says. “We may simplify the service some, and it may not always be free. It costs a lot to hire someone to be on the road three days a week. But we’re here to stay in this home-delivery, to-the-door experience.”
His customer Linda Moore is excited to get back to the farmers markets, but she says she’ll continue to order online from Rose Creek as well.
“I like the idea of doing both,” says Moore. “I will go back to the market, though, because I love the outdoors and sunshine. I like picking out my food from local farmers.”
Delivery will also continue for Tubby Creek customers. After hiring drivers, planning routes, and learning new technology, they’ve got the infrastructure in place to offer delivery and online ordering even though the Alexanders have returned to the farmers market.
“We know there will be a gradual change to get back to normal, and some people may not feel comfortable going out to pick up food for a while,” she says.
Peterson with Alpha Omega iws happ to be back at the market interacting with customers again, but he says online ordering and home delivery will continue.
“I like to interact with customers face to face and to be able to turn people onto vegetables that they might not buy if they saw them online and didn’t know how to cook them,” he says. “But since so many of our customers have been people who don’t visit us at the market, I think that online sales and home delivery will be a permanent part of what we do. I think there will continue to be a demand for it.”
Peterson sees this pandemic shift toward home delivery as an opportunity for farmers to reclaim some of the ground that was traditionally occupied by grocery stores and even meal kit subscription services, like HelloFresh and Blue Apron.
“Even though it’s stressful for me as a farmer to sell in that way, I think it’s an opportunity for local farmers to show what we can do, to show that we can deliver high-quality food efficiently and in a way to engage with customers who might not be buying from us regularly,” he says. “It’s a good step for those of us who are able to do it.”
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Bianca Phillips writes about vegan food (and shares images of everything she eats) on her blog, Vegan Crunk. She’s the author of Cookin’ Crunk: Eatin’ Vegan in the Dirty South. By day she works as the communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts/Crosstown Concourse. She and her partner, Paul, are the proud parents of five cats and one very stubborn (but adorable) pit bull. @biancaphillips
Ziggy Mack is an internationally published photographer about town. When not immortalizing the movements of ballerinas, circus performers and mermaids, he spends his time finding candid moments involving delectable cuisines and the people that create them. @fomoloop