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Planning for COVID-19 on your produce farm

March 23, 2020
Woman selling vegetables at a farmer's market

Many farmers are wondering how to respond to the COVID-19 virus. The information in this article is intended to help growers navigate communication, logistics and planning. We will continue to develop resources as more information becomes available. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to reach out to our fruit and vegetable team with questions and concerns.

This is a rapidly evolving situation. For the most up-to-date information, please follow the CDC. See this article about managing food safety risk related to COVID-19 for more food safety information.

Good communication

Maintaining good communication with customers is one of the most important things farmers can do right now. Use social media, newsletters and other marketing tools to let your customers know that you have a plan. People who purchase locally generally care about where their food comes from and how it’s handled. Communicating your plans to customers helps them feel connected to your business, and to feel calm in the face of uncertainty.

For those of you who sell through wholesale or retail markets, consider getting in touch with your buyers. Plans you made previously may need to be adjusted.

Make sure to stick to the facts. Staying calm and avoiding misinformation is critical. While access to healthy, fresh foods is vitally important to community health, avoid making unsubstantiated or overstated health claims like “eating local vegetables protects your family against viruses.” 

This is a time when many of us are feeling isolated and lonely. The more that we stay connected, the better. Sharing regular farm updates with customers will not only help to reassure them about safety but will help to instill a sense of community.

Logistics: managing sales

There are some practical solutions that can help keep people safe and maintain social distance with orders and deliveries. Farmers, market managers and others have offered the following ideas to manage local food sales during COVID-19.

Online sales

Many farms are moving to online sales options. In China, where people have been socially distancing for a while now, online shopping has significantly increased, as has grocery delivery.

Though we can’t yet predict market trends, some of the farms participating in COVID-19-related farmer-to-farmer calls are already seeing increased online sales and subscriptions in response to the virus. Online tools can be applied to numerous types of systems: if you sell at a farmers’ market that is going to trial curbside pickup, you can use online platforms to allow customers to order ahead of time. Online sales can also help to manage customizable CSA boxes and delivery options.

Some of the available platforms include Harvie, Farmigo, Facebook, Barn2Door, Local Food Marketplace, Local Line, Squarespace, and others. Oregon Tilth hosted a webinar where they discussed the pros and cons of each of these systems; we’ll post the link to the recorded version when it becomes available.

Example of a build-your-own handwashing station. Tank with water sitting over a bucket in a farm field.

CSA drop-off sites and in-person pick-ups

In a time when we need to encourage social distancing, the logistics of a CSA drop site can be complicated. This is not an extensive list of suggestions, but here are a few ideas (most were contributed by CSA farmers) for reducing risk at drop sites:

  • Coordinate schedules at CSA drop-off and on-farm pick-up sites to avoid too much traffic at once. Examples of tools to help you assign pick-up windows include Square, Doodle, Google Calendar, HubSpot meetings tool, and Setmore. There are many others, and this is not an endorsement of any of the tools listed. 
  • Consider adding additional sites to minimize the number of total people at each site. And create systems at busy sites to facilitate social distancing. Some CSAs have put tape on the floor with marks six feet apart to help people gauge how far apart to stand if they need to wait in line.
  • If people are coming to your farm to pick up orders, make sure to facilitate social distancing when possible, and have hand washing stations available. Place signs to let people know your policies including where to stand, what boxes to touch, handwashing, etc.
  • If you have a farmstand-style CSA where people browse through available produce, consider using pre-bagged shares temporarily.
  • Reduce cross-contamination at drop-off sites: use disinfectant wipes for things like pens and pencils, clipboards, surfaces where you’re leaving boxes, and door handles. Think about how you’re stacking boxes so that people won’t have to touch multiple boxes in order to find theirs.
  • Document the precautions you’re taking at drop-off sites or any delivery sites. These records are helpful to show the measures your farm is taking in keeping your customers safe.

Home delivery

Many farms are starting to consider home delivery as a viable sales option, despite the extra logistical work. Some farms are doing this for all customers, some are doing it only for people who identify as vulnerable to the disease. There is little consensus on how much to charge - we’ve seen as low as $3 and as high as $10 per delivery.

One good suggestion was to use a routing app to help you maximize your time and minimize the distance traveled. Examples include OptimoRoute, Farmigo and MapQuest (this is not an endorsement, simply a list of companies we know of that provide these services).

Consider partnering with neighboring farms to reduce the costs and burden of delivery.

If you have neighbors who raise animals for meat or eggs, grow fruit or make other value-added products, consider working together. While assembling orders and delivering products from multiple farms typically requires licensing for the entity taking responsibility for the assembly and delivery, the MDA is not exercising licensing enforcement at this time.

The MDA is committed to ensuring the continued safety of Minnesota’s food supply and requires that safe food handling practices are followed for all commercial sales. These practices include:

  • Temperature control for potentially hazardous foods. 
  • Handwashing. 
  • Reducing cross-contamination potential. 
  • Training for all workers involved in food handling, transport and delivery. 
  • Having sick workers stay home.

See the Selling Minnesota: Aggregation of Farmers’ Produce guide for more details about requirements when multiple farms are working together to sell products.

Be creative about using local transportation.

Local courier companies may be currently out of business or seeing reduced business at this time. You may find that other local transportation businesses (even Lyft or Uber drivers) will partner with you on delivery. If you pursue this option, you need to ensure food safety.

  • If the product is perishable, you need to ensure it can stay within safe temperature ranges during transport.
  • Product in transport needs to be in sealed, food-safe containers that keep out dust or other potential contaminants.
  • Delivery vehicles must be clean.

The Selling Minnesota: Aggregation of Farmers’ Produce guide includes information about safe transport of products. The Minnesota Department of Health issued guidance on food delivery for businesses adapting to COVID-19.

Finally, consider work-share positions to help with delivery. Be aware, though, that employment law and insurance requirements are likely to apply to a work-share person. Farm Commons has good information about managing requirements for farm employees.

Lost sales

If you have lost existing wholesale accounts with restaurants and schools, please fill out MDA's Immediate Wholesale Market Need Survey. Our partners at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture are working with the Minnesota Grocers Association to help growers find alternative markets.

Prepare for getting sick

Have a plan

While we do not know how many of us will get sick, do not assume that you will not be affected. It’s quite possible that you and your employees will get this virus, and it’s important to have a plan in place for when or if it happens. Refer to your farm’s food safety plan for policies you may already have in place.

Two Farmers Farm in Maine has graciously made their COVID-19 specific plan public for others to reference. In addition to basic farm and food safety policies, consider possible scenarios (markets closing, employees or farm managers getting sick), and have plans in place to respond.

How do you decide whether employees should stay home? The CDC has a great risk assessment flow chart to help determine individual risk level. Some farms have also suggested having employees take their temperature each morning, and asking anyone to stay home who has a cough or fever.

Thinking about income

Some farms have expressed concerns that if they have to close for a while because they’re sick, people might not trust them in the future, or might become wary of local foods. Ultimately if you need to close temporarily while you and your employees recover, it will show your customers that health and safety are priorities for you (your health and safety, but also theirs!). As long as you communicate what’s happening, how you’re responding, and how you’re making sure that safety is your number one priority, people will appreciate your honesty and concern for safety.

At this point in time, we really can only guess what will happen to markets. This may pose a challenge to crop planning, especially if a substantial portion of your sales go to grocery stores, schools or other wholesale accounts.

Preparing for reduced cash flow

The U.S. Small Business Administration provides small business loans to businesses and non-profits that are seriously impacted by COVID-19. You can learn more about these programs on their website. Consider local lenders as well, including lenders you have worked with before.

If you are predicting reduced sales for your farm, there are a few lower-risk planting options to consider. Shifting towards longer season crops that can be harvested later will give you some extra time to figure out back-up markets. Planting things that can be stored easily without intensive inputs (dry beans, popcorn, herbs to dry for teas, winter squash) may provide you with more flexibility. Ryan Pesch, a farmer and Extension educator near Pelican Rapids recommends sticking to the basics - people may be more interested in staple crops than novel varieties this year.

If you are predicting increased sales on your farm, keep in mind that at this point we do not know how long current conditions will last. If it is feasible for you to increase production, great. However, if increased production would require substantial investments in infrastructure or labor, it may be best to proceed cautiously.

Stay connected

In times of uncertainty, it’s important to stay connected. Talking to fellow farmers to learn about new platforms or methods will be one of the best ways to adapt to new systems, and most importantly, talking with fellow farmers is a reminder that you’re not alone in this.

Here are a couple of places online where farmers can discuss COVID-19 responses (there are many others too):

The National Institute of Mental Health has some helpful tips for managing stress. Minnesota also has two rural mental health specialists who are available to talk to farmers who are navigating stressful situations.

Natalie Hoidal and Jake Overgaard, Extension educators

We want to extend a special thank you to the many farmers who have participated in COVID-19 response calls as well as Jane Jewett, Maggie Frazier, Valerie Gamble, and Annalisa Hultberg for sharing their expertise with this article.

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