Coping with Covid: An online market opportunity to build local food resiliency

Circumstances created by the Covid-19 virus quickly revealed frustrating weaknesses in our supply chains. Those seen in fresh foods are a natural outcome of what is typical scarcity in our local supply. Only 10% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Maryland are grown in the state. Feeling the effects of this statistic come alive when not finding everything they need in stores, some people had even been trying to drive from farm to farm and collect what they needed.

Gardening

Allie Nemcosky of Westhills Manor explaining her growing practices to Frederick County Food Council members Monica Miles and Lee Babcock of the Ag Economy Working Group.

Some farmers shared stories of people arriving on their doorsteps on the hunt for food and wishing to support independent businesses, whether they were equipped to sell directly, or not. Frederick Fresh Online’s new sales platform ramped up to fill the current needs of local producers and consumers and has already attracted 160 members to a Covid-safe order and curbside pick up in the first 5 weeks of operation.

The Frederick County Food Council’s longstanding mission is to improve the availability of local food to the benefit of our environment, the local economy, and the health of the community. The Council’s Agricultural Economy working group had already been discussing the role that an online sales outlet could play in creating a secure economic market for area farmers to expand their growing capacity. Creating something of the sort during the next calendar year was the topic at hand during the group’s last meeting, immediately prior to regular activities being suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the difficulties people were experiencing came under the spotlight, Community FARE stepped in to provide funding during a proof-of-concept phase so that the community’s immediate needs could be met. FARE stands for food, advocacy, resources, and education, and this mission means advocating for both the farmers and the community as a whole.

This teachable moment with regard to our local food supply meant an opportunity for the implementation team to launch Frederick Fresh Online, and with FARE’s support use the experience to learn how a local food sales platform would work best moving into the future.

Nick Miller carrying bag

Farmer Nick Miller loads a customer’s order into a trunk at the customer pick up at Bar-T Mountainside

Bar-T Mountainside offered to host the distribution site after summer camp hours once a week. The farm on site, known as Mountainside Grows, is one of several farms selling on the platform. Mountainside Grows typically serves both to feed and educate hundreds of campers, just a fraction of whom are in attendance this summer due to restrictions in group sizes mandated on account of the pandemic conditions. Nick Miller, the farmer and ag educator at Bar-T, is volunteering regularly to assist in aggregating the customer orders, and also selling the fresh produce he grows there.

Nick Miller loading

Nick Miller loads a Frederick Fresh Online order into a customer’s trunk at the pick up site at Bar-T Mountainside. Customer pick ups are between 5 & 7pm on Wednesdays.

He and a group of rotating volunteers from the Food Council are organizing and handling the pick up of the pre-ordered food on Wednesdays between 5 and 7 at Bar-T’s new white barn building just past the office at the camp’s location in Urbana. McClintock Distilling donated hand sanitizer for use by volunteers and customers at the pick up site.

Initially it appeared that it would be a challenge to find farms with the capacity to supply inventory to the online marketplace, again underscoring the limited availability of locally grown food. Many of the local farmers had been filling their CSA subscriptions to maximum capacity and selling everything they had either through direct farm stand sales or at local farmers markets. After calling several farmers, a group of producers who are new to the local community or relatively new to farming created a group large enough to get the project rolling.

Berrypicking

Nick Miller picking raspberries at Mountainside Grows, where he grows fruits and vegetables at Bar-T Mountainside.

In addition to Mountainside Grows, farmers currently using the platform to sell produce include Dandelion & Rust Farm in Myersville, where they grow unique varieties.

Rows

Laura Genello shows members of the Frederick County Food Council around at Dandelion & Rust farm.

Chocolates & Tomatoes Farm in Middletown sells both fresh produce and artisanal chocolate. Westhills Manor lists organically grown flowers, natural insect repellants, and the produce they are growing in their first year of farming food. Serenity Grove Farm in Mount Airy is offering seedlings, aromatics and herbs, and will offer produce as it becomes available.

Pointing

Mark Mills of Chocolates & Tomatoes providing a tour of his farm to members of the Frederick County Food Council.

Deer Run Farm in Emmitsburg is listing eggs and cuts of pasture raised and corn finished beef, which helps fulfill other shopping needs. A couple of other meat producers raising chicken and pork have expressed interest in trying the platform when they have more product available.

Deer Run Farm

Allison Rostat in her hatchery at Deer Run farm.

Kim’s Urban Homestead is one of the latest to join, listing produce, seeds, and plants, and most recently Copper Penny Farm has begun selling eggs, cuts of pork, fresh and cured sausage products, and animal treats sourced from their pasture raised animals. They may include chicken, eggs, and additional cuts of beef at a later date, depending on what the customer demand seems to require. The blend of different farms and levels of experience in the field creates an opportunity for newer producers to find a market and grow their businesses.

Pigs

Pasture raised pigs at Copper Penny Farm, which recently relocated from Hanover, MD to fAdamstown in Frederick County.

One benefit of the online model is that farmers know ahead of the delivery what their order size is, which is different from the risk they assume in devoting time to a farmers market where they need to sell in-person, but daily variables such as weather or conflicting events may limit volume of sales. This provides them the security of delivering prepaid orders to the pick up site at Bar-T. For Frederick Fresh Online customers this pick to order process also means that they are getting the very freshest produce possible.

Additional producers are welcomed to apply to sell on the site. During the inaugural proof-of-concept growing season the organization is only asking for 5% of the sales total from farmers in order to cover software licensing and credit card processing fees. The Food Council and Community FARE encourage organic or sustainable growing practices and attention to soil health as means to improve the stewardship of the land and environment, as well as encourage the healthiest, most nutritious food to nourish the community.

Community interest in Frederick Fresh Online has grown steadily over the initial weeks of operation. A proactive group of citizens in Point of Rocks has engaged a group of volunteers. One dedicated volunteer shuttles orders from the pick up site in Urbana to distribute at Solid Rock Assembly of God Church in Point of Rocks. They are kindly offering the use of their space to the community.

The Food Council is also interested in scaling up to include more pick up locations throughout Frederick County as volunteer availability, space, and funding will allow. It’s exciting to see residents of Frederick County engaged and working together to improve access to local food. If you think this could be of interest to your community, please contact the Frederick Fresh team.


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