LOCAL FARMERS OVERCOME, ADAPT TO FEED COMMUNITIES

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Bags of vegetables from Belle Meadow Farm sit on a table in an almost-empty River Market, awaiting pickup.

Laurie Beth Kesterson wasn’t even supposed to be on the road when her Ram Promaster cargo van was T-boned at an intersection on Veteran’s Memorial Parkway.

On a normal Friday night, Kesterson – who owns Belle Meadow Farm with her husband Andrew – would have been preparing for the farmers market held at the Tuscaloosa River Market the next morning. But this wasn’t a normal Friday night. Due to concerns over COVID-19, the city of Tuscaloosa decided to temporarily shut down the Saturday morning market. They notified Kesterson earlier that day, but it was already too late.

“Basically in response to them letting us know the Friday before market that it was going to be closed, we had already harvested everything, so I had all these vegetables,” Kesterson said.

In a hurry to unload the produce, Kesterson sent out a mass message to some of her regular customers and began delivering their orders directly to their doorsteps. She was midway through her deliveries when her vehicle was struck by an oncoming SUV, totaling the van and sending her to the hospital for an evaluation and CT scans. Relatively unharmed, Kesterson was soon released. Instead of recovering at home, she picked up right where she’d left off.

“When I got out of the hospital, I woke up Sunday, checked my temperature, made sure I was good to go, and finished the damn deliveries,” Kesterson said.

The pandemic currently gripping the globe has fundamentally changed the way people live their lives, including local farmers. With traditional farmers markets shut down and many local restaurants closed, Alabama’s farmers are learning how to operate within the confines of the outbreak, adapting and innovating in order to keep their communities well-fed.

Two weeks after the traditional market was shuttered, the city of Tuscaloosa learned that farmers markets, like grocery stores, are considered essential services by the Alabama Department of Agriculture. 

“We passed that [information]up to the city of Tuscaloosa’s incident command and they agreed that it was an essential service,” said Alexis Clark, operations manager for the River Market. “We formatted a plan to open the market back up in a different way, in a safer way that doesn’t involve anyone having to get near or touch each other with the curbside model.”

In the curbside model, customers pre-order produce directly from the vendors and pick it up in the parking lot outside the River Market. This method cuts down on human contact and takes cash out of the equation.

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Clark contacted the vendors about re-opening the market, and the curbside model debuted last Saturday. Kesterson and Belle Meadows Farm participated in the event, but they were only one of a handful of vendors who did. As opposed to a typical Saturday morning, when about 30 vendors set up tables in the River Market, only 10 vendors were listed on the River Market’s website as participants in the curbside model. Only six of them specialize in produce.

“The cash model is really what we emphasized before, but the whole thing is having to change to contactless,” Kesterson said. “Cash is really dirty.”

Instead of an exchange of cash, most farmers are requiring customers to place orders online. While some are accepting payment in the form of a mailed check, many of the farmers utilize Square, an electronic payment system, to collect money for orders. It doesn’t work for everyone though.

“For us and younger farmers, [using Square]is a lot easier than for the older farmers,” Kesterson said. “I know some of the older farmers don’t even know what I’m talking about when I say Square.”

Farmers are, by nature, adaptable people. They’re used to accommodating rain or drought and working longer hours than expected during harvest season. Yet for many of the older farmers, transitioning to an online payment system to reach customers poses a minefield of problems, including issues with internet access, an inherent doubt of technology and a lack of know-how.

“That’s kind of where my concern is coming from, is how the older farmers that have paved the way for us younger farmers are going to stay prosperous,” Kesterson said. “That is a concern of mine. I’m not worried about myself. Farmers are adaptable anyway. That’s farm life. It’s the technology aspect.”

Rena Jarvis, who owns and operates Lar-Rens Farm in southwest Tuscaloosa County with her husband Larry, was another vendor who participated in the River Market’s first curbside Saturday. She utilized the Square invoicing feature on her website to pre-sell her chicken and their eggs, both of which quickly sold out. With grocery stores struggling to keep chicken stocked, Jarvis has seen a sharp increase in demand. While her business has benefitted from the pandemic, she knows many farmers, particularly those who are older, are having a tougher time.

“It seems to be the older ones who never got into the social media type stuff,” Jarvis said. “They’re happy with their farm, going to the market and selling their produce and going home.”

But when there’s not a traditional market for these farmers to go to, it becomes extremely difficult for them to unload their produce and remain successful. That’s why many of the farmers who Jarvis was used to seeing at the River Market didn’t participate in the curbside model.

“I don’t think they realize how many farmers can’t come because they don’t have internet, they don’t use Square, and I even know some who still use a flip phone,” Jarvis said. “They don’t even have a smartphone. So no, they don’t have the capability of doing this.”

Outside of the River Market, other farmers in west Alabama are finding new ways to reach their customers. Sarah McElfresh has been selling large quantities of Angus beef from her farm in Fayette, Alabama to Fannie’s, a restaurant in the town’s center. But since those orders have been cut back after the restaurant switched to carry-out only, McElfresh has looked for other ways to reach her consumers. She’s currently working with the local school system to establish a Vista Farms pop-up shop at Fayette High School.

“It’s going to be, say five pounds of pre-packaged ground beef and a quick exchange of hands and [we’re doing that] to reach out to the community that’s not able to go to the grocer and stuff of that nature,” McElfresh said.

McElfresh hopes that her temporary shop, along with a reduction in price, will help her reach more members of the community, some of whom don’t have easy access to fresh meat. At least, not meat of the quality that comes from her 400-head purebred Angus herd.

“We actually lowered the price of our ground beef by about 20% to try to help out the people in need,” McElfresh said. “My husband and I went to Walmart and other grocery stores and saw how sparse everything was and it was just a kick in the gut to see what is happening to our community.”

McElfresh has also relied on the help of Sweet Farm Alabama, a non-profit organization that promotes the state’s farmers and the products they create. Sweet Farm Alabama started offering memberships last fall, and was expecting this summer to be the first major season that it could promote its farmers. That changed when COVID-19 began spreading throughout the country. The pandemic has made Sweet Farm Alabama Director Ellie Boykin’s job more difficult, but it’s also shown her the resiliency of Alabama farmers.

“We weren’t prepared for a global pandemic when we started this project,” Boykin said. “It’s been so encouraging because it just proves that agriculture is such an essential industry. Our farmers and the people who are producing our products that are grown in Alabama, they’re not going to stop for anything. A global pandemic is not going to stop them from producing local, high-quality products for Alabama consumers.”

Boykin assembled a list of Alabama farmers who are currently producing vegetables, fruit and meat, and she has been working to distribute it among consumers. McElfresh’s Vista Farms is one of the many on that list and Boykin applauds her for using out-of-the-box methods to serve her customers.

“Many of our farmers are implementing creative strategies like drive-thrus on their farm,” Boykin said. “Others are doing you-pick operations but are implementing social distancing while hosting those agro-tours and activities. We’ve seen the resiliency of farmers because they have been able to adapt and overcome during this unusual time.”

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