The last of the crops have been harvested and seasonal farmers markets are closed. These are signs that winter is here. Coastside farmers looking back at the year said the last few months were a test of their ability to pivot and invest in new ways of doing business.
Early in the pandemic, many farms suffered along with ailing restaurants that were no longer able to cater to large, dine-in crowds. While many Coastside farms experienced the loss of this crucial source of revenue, the extent of that loss varied. It appears that smaller farms not only got through the season intact, but owners say they fared surprisingly better than they expected.
Two farms, Harley Farms and Simms Organics, relied heavily on selling directly to buyers. While both took different approaches, the farms’ owners said direct-to-consumer sales undoubtedly saved them.
Shift online is essential
Harley Farms, situated on nine acres in Pescadero, has developed a reputation for being more than a farm. Over the years, it’s where couples say wedding vows and groups come for tours and weekly dinners. And for some households, watching the birth of Harley’s baby goats has become a family tradition.
The farm began last year with a business plan that lauded diversification as its mantra. But when the pandemic hit in March, essentially removing the farm’s income from events and tours, owner Dee Harley said she and her team doubled down on its products, from goat cheeses to soaps and jams.
“The reality of this lifestyle for us is we have more than 200 goats. They have to be fed, taken care of, and milked. You’ve got to do it, you’ve got to pay for it somehow,” Harley said. “It tested our creative edge.”
Harley said the farm focused on stocking the shop located on the property, but also prioritized setting up a website and experimented with home deliveries for preorders.
The website quickly took off, in large part due to Harley’s marketing plan. The day after the shelter-in-place order went into effect in March, she started calling and emailing everyone who had ever had a wedding, booked a tour or dinner, or had reservations for now-canceled visits at the farm.
“We had this relationship with people. We just said, ‘We’re doing online deliveries and preorders that you could pick up. Please tell your friends. We’re making cheese, please share this with people if you can.’ I just outright asked people,” she said. “It translated immediately. Then we got really busy.”
To meet the growing demand, the farm started offering new products like scones and jams. And with the website a success, Harley said she invested in building a customized online shopping site.
In recent days, Harley ran the numbers and calculated that COVID-19 initially led to a loss of 30 percent of revenue that the farm was able to almost completely make up through the online shop, new products and socially distant picnic events.
As elated as Harley is to look back on what turned out to be a good year, she said the shift did not come easily. There were many new decisions that needed to be made: With the new online shop, how long should they keep their brick-and-mortar open? What minimum order warranted a home delivery?
“I think we have a lot of viability in every aspect of what we do because we have a direct connection with people. It’s more what we personally — the people who work here — want to do and what we don’t want to do,” she said. “I think that’s a powerful place to be as far as going into this year.”
Adding an extra market
Mathieu Simms and Jennifer Simms, co-owners of Simms Organics, a 20-acre farm in Pescadero, can be found at the Coastside Farmers Market every Saturday.
They sell at five markets every week, accounting for 95 percent of the farm’s revenue.
The ability to interact directly with their consumers was a big draw for Simms when he decided to go into the business four seasons ago. So, at every market, either he or his partner is running the stall.
In a typical season, farmers markets provide crucial information for sellers.
Customers give them new ideas for what to grow next. And walking past the other stalls tells Simms what to bring to differentiate themselves at each market. But this year, the markets were a lifeline.
Much like other farmers, they had accounts with restaurants that dried up, but Mathieu Simms said he felt he could rely on farmers market sales.
“We just took extra (produce) to market and we probably took on extra market that we wouldn’t have if we had those restaurant accounts,” he said.
If anything, it turned out that Simms didn’t have enough and they plan to go into the next growing season with more seeds, especially mixed greens and Asian vegetables, which were a particular hit at the San Francisco market.
“If we had known what we know now, I would have planted a lot more early in the season and we would have sold more produce. This year could have been a lot better had we foreseen the sales that we did,” he said.
Simms said a big reason for the shortage was that the farm sold a lot of its produce before some markets even opened for the season. They received direct calls and emails from customers who wanted to support local farms.
The farm also sold some portion of its produce through a new local delivery service called Rebyl Food. The company, founded by a Coastside resident, partners with local farms and delivers to customers from Montara to Pescadero.
“I think delivery woke people up to the local supply chain a little bit more and where their food really comes from,” Simms said. “Going forward, that’s our mantra: to take advantage of that and see if people can really continue to support local.”
A new model for all?
BJ Burns, president of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, spoke in measured terms about the big picture for most growers on the Coastside. He believed most, if not all, farms would plant less than they did last year.
“I believe they’ll all cut back unless they know something I don’t know,” he said.
Burns recalled how in the last two years, the Coastside lost two growers. Following the pandemic, he said the area may lose another two or three.
“And I believe there’s more coming if we don't do something to set up a market to protect our farmers by giving them a place to sell,” Burns said.
Tucked behind country roads, the scene was at times devastating: truckloads of produce with nowhere to go and left to rot. Anecdotally, whole deliveries of restaurant-catered produce, like mint and arugula, went bad.
“You never know what the effect is going to be until you’ve got the product in the ground. You go to work on it and all of a sudden there’s a problem,” he said.
Burns hopes that the amount of waste and stress from the uncertainty of sales this last year will revive an idea he has been advocating for for nearly a decade: the creation of a farmers cooperative.
As Burns envisions it, the co-op would be part grocery store and part distribution house, and it would be co-owned by local growers. A co-op would guarantee a destination for all agricultural products and thus ensure farmers are paid for what they grow. This may prove beneficial especially for larger farms for whom factors like labor and distribution come with additional risk. Burns said a co-op would ease some of that burden and maybe even save agriculture on the Coastside.
“If there was a co-op, we could be taking all the stuff there. You’d have a bigger selection and assurance it was there all the time,” he said. “I preach it every time I get a chance.”
Even food banks, which turned out to be a crucial buyer during the pandemic, could be supplied by such a co-op. “If you set it up correctly,” Burns said.
While Burns admits that there are outlets like selling at farmers markets and to food banks, such approaches only go so far and may not fit the needs of every farm. But a co-op may be the answer for farms of all sizes.
“Our agriculture, in my opinion, and it’s not just because of COVID, is going downhill in our county. We’re not getting the support we need to preserve agriculture,” Burns said.
With the market the way it is, Burns is always playing it safe. Years ago, he pulled out of the dried and cut flower business and focused on growing pumpkins and oat hay. If things ever turned up, he might be able to grow new varieties that he’s long thought of trying.
A farmer himself, he is concerned about the viability of farming if nothing is done. He said he’s seen too many losses and many farmers struggle, but he remains optimistic.
“There’s never been guarantees and you should always be looking forward to something. Otherwise you wouldn't be farming,” he said. “You’re always looking to do better, change and do different things. That’s what you do — you’re always hoping for a better year.”