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How the Region’s Farmers’ Markets Are Weathering the Pandemic

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After some losses, local markets are embracing new systems and making a come back. 

Local farmers’ markets are harvesting new customers—and great profits. From Bryn Mawr to Media to Downingtown, vendors report increased business among people looking for locally grown and sourced food. It’s one of the few upsides to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It hasn’t been easy for everyone. Nationwide, markets are expected to see a 10-25 percent loss of profits in 2020, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

In March, when restaurants, schools and offices closed, local farmers and food makers faced sudden profit losses and were forced to adapt. At Shellbark Hollow Farm in Honey Brook, weekly cheese orders plummeted from 15 or 20 to two. Established in the late 1990s, the dairy farm sells its artisan goat cheese at Bryn Mawr and Media farmers’ markets and local gourmet shops. And though it has a devoted customer base for its fresh goat ricotta, herb-marinated chèvre, cranberry goat cheese spread, goat kefir and fresh goat yogurt, its farm-to-table business has “pretty much gone out the window,” says Shellbark Hollow co-owner Jeanne LeVasseur.

Sorelle Cucina’s Deanne Boucher was faced with a different predicament. She was already selling her Italian prepared foods at local farmers’ markets when she made plans to open a café and takeout location in Malvern. The unveiling was set for April, then cancelled. “We had our final inspection and were told, ‘Sorry you can’t open,’” Boucher says.

So Boucher opened Sorelle as takeout only. She’s now doing a hearty business selling eggplant stacks, mac-and-cheese cups, chicken and beef meatballs, mushroom-leek quiche, and fresh tomato sauce.

Frecon Farms is known for its fresh fruit and gourmet ciders made from Golden Rush Jonagold, Golden Delicioius, Fuji, Granny Smith, Winesap and other Pennsylvania-grown apples. It has a storefront at its home location in Boyertown and sells at Bryn Mawr, Downingtown and other farmers’ markets. Fall delicacies include focaccia, chicken pot pies, cider doughnuts and apple pies.

Since its founding in 1944, the farm has “weathered its fair share of economic disasters,” says general manager Steve Frecon.

But nothing compares to the early days of COVID-19 and the tough weeks of crashing profits and dry demand. “Initially, it was terrifying,” Frecon says.

Quick-thinking, fast-moving farmers and entrepreneurs took action, banding together to share information and technology. Lisa O’Neill owns Growing Roots Partners, which manages the Devon Yard, Eagleview, Downingtown, Malvern and West Reading farmers’ markets. She took the necessary steps to make her markets COVID compliant. “I realized immediately that I couldn’t do this as usual,” says O’Neill.

With her pre-ordering system, customers shop online before they arrive at the market. Realizing this was a big change for customers and vendors, O’Neill tested the system before it went live. She got an overwhelmingly positive response and transitioned all Growing Roots markets to the pre-order model.

At the same time, supermarkets were experiencing shortages and long lines of customers. As the situation deteriorated, more and more customers turned to farmers’ markets to get fresh food. Pre-ordering guarantees their food will be available, which was not the case at all supermarkets. “At the height of the food shortages, we were doing well over 1,000 pre-orders per market in a two-hour pickup window,” O’Neill says.

Pre-COVID, Growing Roots did half that volume. Still, getting the pre-order system in place wasn’t easy. None of O’Neill’s producers—whether they sold vegetables, baked goods, meals or beer—had online ordering systems. Frecon stresses the challenge of putting together an online system. “We’re not Amazon—it’s just not the way we do things,” he says. “But it’s the way we had to learn to do it.”

Local markets kept Frecon’s business afloat. “They’ve held their own,” he says. “They’re right where they were last year in terms of sales.”

LeVasseur notes the “learning curve” in creating a system that was both a “blessing and a curse.” While it eliminated in-person interactions with patrons, customers did get to see more Shellbark products. As her sales in farmers’ markets expanded, she initially saw a drop in profits. After a few months, sales increased.

For now, pre-ordering and contact-less pickup are the new normal. It’s what customers want—and it’s helpful for people who have large orders. Frecon is likely to keep the online system.

O’Neill also plans to retain Growing Roots’ pre-ordering system when COVID restrictions are lifted. At the moment, her markets are a hybrid of in-person and pre-order sales. “Without a doubt, pre-orders are still running the market,” she says.

But that should change once things are safer. “Everyone is really missing the social aspect,” says Frecon.

Shellbark’s online sales have decreased, but LaVasseur is happy to see customers. Going to the market has become an “outing for people to get out of the house,” she says.

The number of pre-orders has also started to decrease for Boucher as folks feel more comfortable going out. “They want to come shop,” she says.

Meanwhile, Growing Roots is in the black and looking at healthy profits. “We’re so far ahead we’d have to collapse,” says O’Neill.

And if there’s another COVID-19 spike? “If we have to shut down again, farmers’ markets won’t,” O’Neill says. “We’re deemed essential and have a really safe interface to get our foods to customers.”

For a directory of local farmers’ markets, visit www.mainlinetoday.com.