One thousand small chains
It is a fascinating time to be a farm like ours.
I find myself half-joking that I wish this crisis, if it had to happen, could have come a few years later. How much better positioned we would be, with far more food in production, our own full array of on-farm infrastructure, and, if we are successful, more farmers like us on the land than ever before and regional processing in place that would allow them to scale up and actualize a robust regional food system.
But that is not the case, and perhaps too far in the future we would have realized our on-farm diner dreams, only to have them crushed under the critical management of a global health crisis.
So here we are with clear and ongoing consequences, sold out of whole wheat flour three months earlier than we expected. How did this happen?
Just as we began to look to field work and the many projects of 2020, our globalized food system got a kink in the chain. The conventional means of acquiring food was profoundly disturbed, and a scramble began. Our lean-and-mean food supply chains could not handle the bulk-buying of a consumer base suddenly finding it necessary to cook for themselves for so many more of their meals or finding it a comfort to learn and apply new kitchen skills—or simply panicking and stocking up on dry goods. This was not for want of supply, as our food system is packed to the gills with raw materials, nor was it for a dramatic increase in demand. Consumers create demand where they are, and they were no longer gathered together, but disaggregated, separated at home. All the flour packed in pillow-sized bags and by the tote on pallets, the cases of steaks, and the onions and potatoes stacked in bulk and destined for food service clogged up the flow of food as consumers asked for those foods, but as 5 lbs of flour, 4 steaks, and a bag each of onions and potatoes that you could comfortably hand to your kids to put away on the kitchen counter.
That food couldn’t get repacked, reprocessed, or redistributed fast enough to meet the shifted demand, especially when the labor to do so was likewise falling ill, being forced to change practices, or restricted at home, and soon grocery store shelves were being emptied. And then consumers began to wonder where they would get their food. And that’s where your local farmers came in.
We were here all along, and we had our fans, the folks to whom local food is important, for its freshness, for its transparency, for its lower carbon footprint, for its role in fortifying local economies, and as is more and more clear, delivering good food value for your dollar. But suddenly a lot more eyes were on us. Our friends at PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta had their best-ever single day of farmers’ market sales in 11 years, and that’s despite it being April—when their seasonal availability of product is generally lowest—and despite customers having to place orders ahead of time and pick them up curbside. Our friends at Janie’s Mill in Ashkum went from an average of 5 online orders a day to 100, and then more from there, and then more. I began to see friends and family from all over the country starting to receive packages of flour from them. Janie’s Mill was featured by the BBC, and they hurriedly hired on more hands and began working overnight shifts to keep up. Local meat lockers are now backed up to fall or even next spring, and the produce and meat sales at Green Top Grocery in Bloomington have maintained a sales rate twice their average pre-pandemic.
For us, our sales roughly doubled. Katie lost a lot of her contracted editing work through a long but fast chain reaction caused by the economic collapse, but we didn’t find ourselves wanting for something to do. We began packing product daily, for Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup, for Green Top Grocery in Bloomington, and for Sous Chef in Peoria, but then also for other farmers and distributors who found themselves able or simply desperately needing to change their marketing strategies. Eat Here St. Louis reached out to start carrying our muffin mix, and then Timberfeast asked to start carrying our pancake and muffin mixes on their home delivery route in Chicago, and then Landmark Creamery asked to carry those same items all the way up in Madison. In a week’s time, our product was suddenly available in three new, large cities, and all the while we were still packing more of those products for our usual outlets. And now, in mid-May, we have run out of wheat flour. There will be no more from our farm until we can harvest, clean, dry, and mill the next crop, probably in mid-August.
We talked often about our anxiety, attributing much of it to the same trauma, grief, and acute uncertainty that everyone is experiencing during this pandemic to varying degrees. But looking back, we may have also just been overworked and overtired.
And this is a really critical point I want to convey here. This time has been exhausting and stressful for us simply for the fact that there was so much more to do to keep up with demand, but there were no radically different changes we had to make. Even those new sales outlets made it remarkably easy for us to work with them. But the same cannot be said for many of your local farmers and food providers. Imagine being PrairiErth Farm, having to improvise a plan for packing nearly 200 orders for curbside pick-up, or being the farmers’ market managers having to improvise a plan for moving all of those cars through in three hours to get their boxes. Or imagine being Eat Here St. Louis or Down at the Farms, local food distributors that worked primarily or exclusively with restaurants, and having to upend your customer lists, delivery routes, packaging, and protocol to stay in business and also keep your workers and customers safe from a virulent disease. Or Green Top Grocery and Common Ground Co-op, our local co-op groceries, who had to shut down bulk sections and self-service counters, allow and enable vulnerable employees to work from home, and hurriedly establish guidelines and new hours for how to shop the store, all while managing a surge in sales and supply disruptions.
Marketing plans are not made easily, nor are they made right the first time. They take years to hone and are constantly under assessment and adjustment. While your local food producers and providers have seen a surge in sales, upending one’s marketing plan in a matter of days or weeks incurs costs in every category: labor, materials, services, and overhead, but also energy, sanity, and time for anything but work. Frankly, your farmers are exhausted. It really, truly hurts to see our friends in such duress, and when the cold and the rain drags on like in so many other years, with a layer of economic and cultural chaos over everything, my perennial frustration at the state of our food system and our economy only intensifies, as its fragility that we recognized all too well has finally come to bear.
But we’re doing our best to turn that into resolve. A lot of the frustration comes from feeling a need to capture the moment, to expand our capacity, to feed even more people and showcase our resilience against disruptions now and in the future, but we’re overwhelmed just by the act of getting the flour in the bag. What we ask, of you and of ourselves, is to not forget this moment in time. It would be impossible, of course, to not reflect on this historic event for the rest of our lives, but among so many profound consequences of this health crisis, please let us recall how easy it was for our food supply chain to crack. And please recall how your local farmers were ready for it, not by chance but by design. We have always been thinking in terms of resilience, of preparation, of abundance and health. We’ll keep thinking and acting that way, not out of fear of crisis, but because a robust local and regional food system is better in the good times and best in the bad times.
Did we have enough flour to keep ourselves supplied through this? It’s true; we did not. It’s not a supply chain issue. It’s just supply dictated by how much we, a farm just a few years old, was able to grow, and as we continue to expand, we will grow more and have more for you to eat. But that’s also why we so adamantly support a community of growers. If you are looking for flour or baking mixes like ours, look to our friend and miller Andy Hazzard at Hazzard Free Farm, or the wonderful family that runs Brian Severson Farm, or Meadowlark Organics up in Wisconsin, or Breslin Farms via Sauce & Bread Kitchen and Fresh Picks, or, as mentioned above, the stalwart folks of Janie’s Mill. In fact, check out this great list that Artisan Grain Collaborative put together (and learn about their Neighbor Loaves program while there), and for a little more perspective, read this article by Amy Halloran. A hundred small chains weave together to form our regional food system, and some day soon there will be a thousand.
While we humans continue to maneuver through this crisis, the wheat crop is lush and thriving. Some time in the last week of July or the first of August, we’ll put the All-Crop Harvester to it and take in our biggest Warthog wheat crop yet. Soon after, it will be dried, milled, and packaged for you to once again feed your family a healthy breakfast grown by your friends in Funks Grove. We can’t tell you how much we appreciate your support and what joy it brings us to feed you and to be part of your lives and meals. We hope we’ll see you all soon, and that you’re taking care of yourselves and your loved ones.