Farmers branching into new markets, offering new products, amid COVID-19

covid-19 economy

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Shore Breeze Farms had just started a new hydroponic lettuce venture when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and suddenly, the owners had to rethink their business model.

“We were just getting our feet wet and getting the ball rolling, and then this whole thing happened,” said Kyle Sturgis, manager of Shore Breeze Farms in Northampton County and chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Committee. “We’re having to reinvent the wheel because a lot of our sales were to restaurants.”

The solution? Salad kits and direct-to-consumer retail sales.

“We take our lettuce and put it in a box,” Sturgis said. “It’s got everything you need in there for a salad, except for the salad dressing.”

Like many farms before the pandemic, Shore Breeze was filling orders for restaurants, schools, farmers markets and others who were selling their products to consumers. Now the farm is reaching the public directly through an online store. And instead of merely buying a head of lettuce, customers can purchase salad kits that include ingredients like croutons, cucumbers, radishes and tomatoes. The online shop also offers products from other local farms.

“It’s been really great,” Sturgis emphasized. “If I could grow more lettuce, I could sell a whole lot more [salad kits]. I could probably sell as many as I can put together.”

As the pandemic continues to impact businesses, commodity prices and supply chains, some farmers are hustling to find new markets and steady revenue streams. Meal kits and value-added products, revamped websites with online sales, a stronger online presence, and even direct shipping to customers are becoming commonplace.

“Necessity is truly the mother of invention,” said Tony Banks, VFBF senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation. “Farms across Virginia that are able—like Shore Breeze—are pivoting their businesses rapidly and creatively in response to the imposed mitigation measures in an effort to protect their livelihoods. Witnessing these farms’ communities and customers respond by supporting their local farmers is heartwarming and amazing.”

Sturgis said he plans to make salad kits and direct sales a permanent fixture, even when traditional markets reopen.

“I’ve had positive feedback on it,” he said. “Hopefully once things get back to normal, it can be an option we have for our customers. I think it’s a good thing for the community.”


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