With restaurant dining shut down, food distribution networks disrupted, and the prospect of farmers markets in doubt because of the Covid-19 pandemic, several East End farmers said they are developing new ways to get their produce directly, and safely, to customers.
“If ever there were a group of people who live by ‘Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst,’ it’s farmers,” said Amanda Merrow, the co-owner of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett, which opened its market on Main Street in the hamlet five weeks earlier than planned, and retooled the way it operates because of the crisis. Due to the need for social distancing, customers cannot shop on site; they must preorder and pay for items on the farm’s website, and schedule a time for pickup.
The farm also has a community supported agriculture program, or C.S.A., which has members pay an upfront fee to cover the cost of planting and harvesting in return for receiving a weekly share of farmer-selected produce. It has been more popular than ever, said Ms. Merrow. “There are 65 spots left,” she said. “We expect to fill up by the end of the month, a month earlier than usual.”
Even before the pandemic, the farm has had protocols for the safe handling of produce, she said, but the staff is being more vigilant now. “I always tell the people who work here, ‘Think of your hands as kitchen tools, whatever you touch, the consumer touches.’ “
Ms. Merrow said she will wait to receive guidance from the state before opening the market to the public, and when that happens, the food there will likely be showcased differently. “We may put more of it behind counters, so fewer people are handling it,” she said.
The crisis has had an effect on staffing, she said. The farm’s annual apprenticeship program has been delayed, and the farm will not hire new people. When the growing season starts to expand in May, those who worked at the farm last season will be brought back, but will have to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.
Depending on how long pandemic-related restrictions last, the farm may have to adjust its crop rotation, she said, reducing the number of more perishable plantings, such as baby greens, and using the acreage to grow produce that can be frozen. “But based on demand right now, I’m not foreseeing any food waste,” she said. At Balsam Farms in Amagansett, “we’re not doing anything differently in terms of growing or acreage,” said Alex Balsam, a co-owner. “We’re focused on keeping our staff safe and healthy, and producing as much as possible because we’re in a unique position to provide food for our town.”
Last year, the farm launched an online shop with a home delivery option, which has had a large influx of customers since the crisis began, he said.
Managing that has been a priority in the midst of what Mr. Balsam called the “huge unknown,” that is, the question of when the farm’s other avenues of distribution, including its farm stand on Town Lane, will be open. After noting that dairy farmers in the South have had to dump milk because so many food businesses are closed, he said, “hopefully the food supply chain can adapt, and hopefully this creates even more appreciation for local farming.”
The pandemic’s impact on farming here has been partially mitigated by the timing of it, said Layton Guenther, the director of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett. “It would have been way more catastrophic if it were happening smack in the middle of our growing season. . . . Right now we’re just focused on seeding and planting and getting ready.” When those plants are ready for harvesting, however, farms will feel the lack of a thriving restaurant industry. “We’re proud of our relationships with restaurants and it’s really difficult to see them struggling like this,” Guenther said. “And we’re going to feel that void.”
The farm’s C.S.A. program is the oldest on the East End, and memberships have skyrocketed. “It’s really unusual to see this many people come out of the woodwork, it’s amazing.” This year, the program is introducing a new pickup spot at Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton.
The majority of members, however, sign up for a program that invites people to self-harvest, which will pose an organizational challenge if social distancing is still necessary. “We’re developing contingency plans for the pick- your-own,” Guenther said. They include putting together pre-packaged boxes of produce either for pickup or delivery. “Even if we’re on the other side of the curve, and we feel comfortable, our members will ask for home delivery, and it will be important for us to show up for them.”
Quail Hill’s apprenticeship program has also been affected by the pandemic. Instead of having the usual four or five apprentices, this year the farm will have two. “Education is such a big mission of our farm,” Guenther said. “We have a responsibility to train.”
David Falkowski, the owner of the Open Minded Organics farm in Bridgehampton, which grows organic mushrooms among other things, said his background as a mycologist has prepared him well for the Covid-19 protocols. “I’m hyperalert about sanitizing, and not touching your face because I’ve accidentally grown my share of penicillin,” he said. Mr. Falkowski, one of the first licensed growers of industrial hemp in the state, also operates OMO the Apothecary, a purveyor of CBD oils and tinctures in Sag Harbor. Sales at the store had been booming in late March, he said, before it closed due to the pandemic. “Now I’m focusing on feeding families,” he said.
The OMO farm stand on Butter Lane has been reconfigured from an enclosed space to an open air market, to make it safer for customers to pick up boxes of produce as well as “add-ins” that range from duck breast to paper towels to a gallon of hand soap. “I turned it inside out,” he said.
Not knowing how long the pandemic will continue to prevent people from gathering at restaurants or farmers markets is making it hard to plan, he said. “Am I going to put tens of thousands of dollars into firing up the mushroom farm?” he asked.
He also questions whether restaurants will be able to create enough distance between diners to make people comfortable enough to dine out. “If I can smell your perfume or gingivitis, that would mean I’m close enough to catch your virus,” he said.
And having throngs of people at farmers markets also seems like a risky proposition, he said. “I’m not sure how I would be able to ensure the safety of my employees. Until I see something that can effectively protect them, I’m on the fence.”
Farm Food can be purchased at amberwavesfarm.org for scheduled pickups at the market at 367 Main Street in Amagansett. Orders must be placed on Sundays by noon for pickup between 1 and 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, and by Wednesdays by noon for pickup between 1 and 4 p.m. on Fridays. C.S.A. memberships: 27-week share from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving weekend is $1,125 21-week share from Memorial Day to Columbus Day weekend is $945 16-week share from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekend is $850 10-week share from July 4 to Labor Day weekend is $550 6-week share starting in August is $395 11-week share from Labor Day to Thanksgiving weekend is $475
Food can be purchased for delivery on Tuesdays and Fridays by visiting delivery.balsamfarms.com. There is a $50 minimum order. The farm is waiving delivery fees right now. C.S.A. memberships:
The program starts May 21
16-week share is $530
19-week share is $630
24-week share is $790
27-week share is $890
Open Minded Organics
Produce boxes can be purchased for scheduled pickups by calling 631-255-0990. Orders must be placed by 4 p.m. on Sunday for pickup on Tuesday, and by 4 p.m. on Wednesday for pickup on Friday. For a list of available add-on items, visit openmindedorganics.com.
Share the Harvest Farm
The farm is offering a 12 to 15-pound bag of fresh produce for $60 a week for 20 families in Amagansett, East Hampton, and Wainscott. Orders must be placed by noon on Tuesday for home delivery on Friday.
Corwith Farm Stand
The stand at 851 Head of Pond Road in Water Mill is open Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and offering contactless delivery and pickups on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Orders can be placed by emailing [email protected]. They must be received by 3 p.m. the day prior to delivery or pickup.
Quail Hill Farm
The farm offers both individual and family shares in its program, which will begin in early June and extend into October. A family share that includes an option for self-harvesting is $980, and a family box share is $850. An individual share that includes self-harvesting is $495, and a box share is $425. Box pickups will be at the farm or at Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton. To purchase a share, visit peconiclandtrust.org.
The Green Thumb
The farm stand on Montauk Highway in Water Mill will open in May, and will offer a C.S.A. program for members who pay an upfront cost for a weekly set amount of produce, flowers, and garden plants.
Sang Lee Farms
The C.S.A. program at Sang Lee, on the North Fork, will run from June 4 through Nov. 12. Customers can choose between a full share of vegetables, which will include about 10 different items per week for $750, or a partial share, which offers 5 to 7 items for $540. The boxes are delivered through Labor Day to the farm’s pickup site at the East Hampton Farmers Market. For an additional fee, the farm will also provide home delivery. Those who sign up for a vegetable share can also buy a six-month share of prepared foods such as soups and dip for $315, and an 18-week share of cheeses for $275 and fruit for $150. Orders can be placed at sangleefarms.com.