For the last few weeks, Community Ventures’ Business Development Specialists have been fielding calls and emails throughout the day from business owners who are scrambling to keep their businesses open, keep their employees on payroll, and adjust to the new reality caused by this crisis. Those conversations have revealed unique challenges that different industries face, as well as new opportunities for the entire community to support them. Farmers in particular, the people that keep our fresh food supply chain running smoothly, are in need of help now more than ever.
This past week, we talked to Maggie Dungan, owner of Salad Days Farm in Woodford County, Kentucky. Maggie reached out to Phyllis Alcorn at Community Ventures because she had been hearing about the different relief loans for business owners. Maggie, like many farmers, are in a unique position because this is the time of year when farmers typically hire employees. “It’s a little unsettling because I don’t know what my markets are going to do, but we still have planting that needs to be done, and this is the time of year to do it.” Maggie has owned the certified organic, diverse vegetable farm since 2015. Her biggest customer was the University of Kentucky Dining program. “All of our orders from UK dining were cancelled because they closed the campus to students mid-semester.” Losing those orders from the University of Kentucky alone left a substantial hit on her projected revenue.
As a result, Maggie came to CV to learn about the different resources that may be available to her. “I called and talked with Phyllis and she went over the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, but she helped me discover that this loan was not available to farmers.” But Phyllis did more digging on her own, and began to send Maggie some details about other USDA resources which might help her. Maggie also learned about the Paycheck Protection Program, another loan product for small businesses who need help with certain operating expenses like payroll. Coming to CV, she was encouraged to finally get concrete answers to her questions. “There is so much information out there right now and you don’t always know if its reliable or accurate, so there were a lot of questions. This is my first time coming to Community Ventures, but now I wish I had been working with them sooner!”
While she has submitted her application for the PPP, Maggie is hopeful that Congress and funding agencies will keep farms like hers in mind for future relief efforts. “Farmers need relief in all kinds of areas. Most of the government subsidies for farmers are geared towards commodity crops like corn, soy, and cattle, while vegetable farms are considered “specialty crops”, leaving those farms out of many relief efforts.” Through her conversations with CV, she’s actually found more relief options for programs designed for small business owners than she has for programs created to support farmers.
For now, Maggie and other Kentucky farmers are looking to adapt to the new reality by looking for other sources of revenue to provide some relief. “We still have farmers’ markets operating but business hasn’t been the same because most people are hesitant about visiting markets in person and standing in lines to talk with farmers.” Maggie is continuing to adapt to her circumstances to sell as much produce as she can. She has opened a self-serve store on the farm, which she describes as a safe way for consumers to get fresh produce, avoid large crowds, and have a contactless transaction. Her self-serve store offers fresh produce along with products from other local farmers including shelf-stable products like homemade hot sauce and other condiments.
She explained the benefit of consumers buying directly from local farms, because consumers can get produce with minimum contacts with other people. “If you look at large groceries, their produce is handled by many more people, distributors, clerks, other customers, etc. If you need fresh produce and are worried about all the hands who handle your food right now, then local farmers provide a great safe alternative.”
Maggie has seen other farmers experiencing similar loss who are finding new ways to adjust their business model as well. She knows one farmer who typically sells only wholesale, but has now switched to selling CSA shares. Others are now forecasting the change in demand because of how hard the restaurant industry has been hit, and they are now planting different types of crops that may yield higher demands for other consumers. “Sadly, we don’t anticipate the restaurant sales being there whenever this is over. We know they’re having a tough time, and even when they can open back up, many of them will be in the red, and won’t be able to purchase the same orders that we’ve relied on in the past.”
Maggie went on to share her biggest fear about the long-term impact of this crisis. Seeing the possibility of a recession becoming more likely, she noted “I fear that farmers, especially those who sell wholesale, won’t be able to make ends meet because their sales won’t be there. If we end up in a recession and consumers have to be much tighter with their money, spending for fresh produce at a local farmers market is one of the first things that many people will give up.”
Despite the bleak outlook, Maggie still finds reasons for optimism. She has seen support for her local community mirrored by stories of fellow farmers on social media around the country. She’s seen stories of farmers offering minimal contact for consumers who are willing to patron them. “There are a myriad of good reasons to shop local, especially food. It’s fresher, nutritionally dense, and healthier for you, which is even more important right now. And when people buy from me – it stays local. I’m able to employ people and they are able to provide for their families.”
Maggie, like many farmers, hopes that coming out of this crisis, there will be more consumers buying directly from local farmers. “We’re in a time where people are having to cook more, and some have more time on their hands, so it’s a great time for people to get to know your farmer and build those relationships. Go to the farmers market and strike up a conversation with them. Join a CSA and get to know that farmer providing your CSA, and get to try new fresh foods. Google local farms and shoot them an email. I am personally responding to every email that I receive right now. But now it’s important to find ways to support these local farmers. They’re always going to be there for you. Farmers are essential.”
To learn more about Maggie’s story and to see Salad Days Farm, visit www.saladdaysfarm.com.