Avrom Farm sits in the hills above Green Lake in central Wisconsin. With 5,000 chickens, 200 pigs and six acres of vegetables, it’s a minnow in an industry dominated by an increasingly small number of producers and processors.
In March, a stay-at-home order hit the region. In just a week, the restaurants the farm sold to shut up shop, and local farmers’ markets closed. That might have been the end for Avrom. But then something interesting happened.
Owner Hayden Holbert cleared space in a corner of his barn and created a tiny fulfillment center, the back-end operation for an online store and delivery service that he had quickly set up. Then he added products from nearby farms to the site.
Soon his digital business outgrew the barn and had to be moved into a newly constructed hoop house. In a few weeks, business online had pretty much compensated for the losses from restaurants and markets. Now Holbert is raising money to outfit an even larger space nearby, complete with a retail store, which will allow him to sell direct to local people year round.
Stories such as Holbert’s have popped up repeatedly in the five months since the coronavirus pandemic forced the United States into varying degrees of lockdown. "There’s been a big uptick in demand — probably 3X," Joe Heitzeberg, CEO of Crowd Cow, which connects consumers with small producers, told me this week.
The demand to buy direct from producers existed before COVID. Consumers like to connect directly with farmers and to feel more confident about what they’re buying. But a combination of broken supply chains, reluctance to visit supermarkets and more time spent cooking at home has accelerated this trend.
This won’t go away any time soon. It’s really entrenched.
"The consumer during COVID has been willing to explore the fastest way to secure healthy, fresh food in their home," said Anne Greven, head of food and ag innovation at Rabobank, which highlighted the rise of farm-to-consumer channels in its latest trends report. "This won’t go away any time soon. It’s really entrenched."
I get this. One of the delights of summer here in San Francisco is my local farmers market, where the peaches and plums and kale taste so much better than supermarket options, which often arrive via lengthy supply chains. It's also great to see new ways for farms to prosper. Yet I think that we should be careful not to assume that farm-to-consumer channels are clearly better than alternatives.
Price is one issue. A whole organic free range chicken on Crowd Cow costs $5 per pound; the equivalent non-organic product in Safeway goes for $1.49 per pound. Don’t get me wrong: I know there are multiple good reasons for this difference, including animal welfare standards. My point isn’t to question the value of organic methods. I’m raising the issue of price to note that low-income families can’t necessarily participate in this trend. It goes back to something I raised a few weeks back in the context of race: We all agree that we need a better food system, but we don’t always ask for whom it’s better.
(To be fair to Heitzeberg, he was well aware of this issue and said he was working hard to reduce the price of everyday essentials. Crowd Cow prices for some products, such as ground beef, come closer to those at Whole Foods and other premium supermarkets.)
There’s a second question about sustainability. How do you know your local small-scale producer has a lower environmental impact than a distant mega-farm? As I noted last week, our intuitions about the industrialization of food aren’t necessarily correct. We need to consider the amount of land required for production, the methods used on the farms and the transport costs. It’s a complicated comparison to make, and we urgently need more data to guide us.
The good news is that progress is being made on both fronts. On the equity side, the pandemic has promoted companies and nonprofits to partner on projects that provide farm produce directly to food-insecure communities. Several research groups are looking at scale and sustainability in food systems, including one major think tank, whose report I hope to write about soon.
I’ll close with an intriguing aside about Hayden Holbert and Avrom Farm. I came across his story via Steward, an investment platform that lets regular people — not just well-heeled, accredited investors — put money into sustainable agriculture projects. This means that you and anyone else can help Holbert build out his new business, and earn a projected 6 to 8 percent return in the process. (You know the drill: Projections are not guarantees of future results.) More details at Steward.
This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.