Farmers reflect on 2020, look to 2021

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A woman stands in a greenhouse holding a baby.
Katie Hawkins stands in a small greenhouse at her farm, Happy Toes Homestead, in Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

This year has been a mixed bag for farmers. A global pandemic brought challenges with processing and logistics, in addition to health concerns. That same pandemic shifted focus back to local food, as larger systems struggled.

It’s been a year of adapting, adjusting plans and solving problems on the fly. Some have struggled. Others have seen their businesses boom.

Growth

Kevin Henslee, of Yellow House Cheese, in Seville, Ohio, told Farm and Dairy for an Aug. 20 article that the farm shifted from farmers markets to online sales early in the pandemic. Sales boomed in the spring and summer, as more people started shopping locally and online. And heading into the end of the year, it hasn’t slowed down.

“We’re picking up more and more customers,” Henslee said.

Last year, the Henslees raised and sold about 100 hogs. This year, Henslee estimated it’s been between 150 and 200. They did 1,500 broiler chickens and 200 turkeys last year, and those numbers doubled in 2020. Processing challenges that Henslee faced earlier in the year are continuing to get better.

Laying low

Katie Hawkins, of Happy Toes Homestead, in Columbus, has seen a bit of a drop off in sales recently, with winter approaching and with COVID-19 cases going up.

“I think more people were kind of trying to lay low and not go out as much,” she said.

But she had a successful summer farmers market season, hitting some of her sales goals at the end of July, she told Farm and Dairy for a Sept. 3 article.

The Clintonville Farmers Market, where she sold her crops over the summer, also decided to try a winter market this year. Hawkins was planning on doing a winter market anyway, so she’s sticking with that market through the winter.

Harvest season

Like Hawkins, Chernor Bundu, of Columbus, has seen things slow down recently. Over the summer and during harvest season, he was driving an hour or more to the farm locations he worked with almost every day — twice, sometimes.

Bundu opened Freetown Supermarket, in Columbus, in April and has been working with retired farmer Ron Hord and several farmers in the Gambier and Mount Hope areas to grow crops to help supply the store, he told Farm and Dairy for an Aug. 20 article.

His sister, Neneh Bundu, did much of the harvesting for him, but he was still driving her there in the mornings and picking her up in the evenings. Between those trips, he worked in his store.

“It was pretty intense,” he said. “I had no idea the crops were going to turn out that good.”

Successful crops meant a lot of work. They only managed to harvest about a quarter of the jute — they just didn’t have enough hands to do it, he said. They got most of the hot peppers harvested, and those have been selling by the box. Bell peppers, on the other hand, were hard to sell over the summer, because of how many other people were selling them.

Two men stand in a field.
Ron Hord and Chernor Bundu stand in front of a field with jute, hot peppers and other produce they are growing at Jonathan Mast’s farm in Gambier, Ohio, for Bundu’s grocery store in Columbus. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Keeping on

Starting a store during a global pandemic isn’t easy — especially when you’re also trying to farm. This year has been a learning experience for Bundu.

Supplying the store with products in addition to what he grows has been difficult at times, Bundu said. At some points, he’s been able to go to one supplier to buy almost everything. Now, he’s finding that he has to go to multiple suppliers to get everything he needs. But he’s starting to see more customers, and is getting diverse traffic from the immigrant community in Columbus.

For Hawkins, another relatively new farmer, diversification and flexibility have been essential.

“I think I’m fortunate that I am still in the beginning stages of my farm overall,” Hawkins said. “I’m still figuring things out and still adapting and trying new things.”

This year, she got connected with a wholesale buyer who needed microgreens for a few restaurants and retail stores. With wholesale markets, a farmers market and a CSA, she has options to fall back on if one market falls through.

The Henslees relied on their connections with other farmers to make their online store a one-stop shop for people looking for local food. They worked with other farmers to offer produce and mushrooms in addition to their own meats and cheeses.

Personal relationships with customers are important to Henslee. During non-pandemic times, he enjoys hosting open houses at the farm. When he meets customers at drop off locations, some grab their orders and go, but others stay and talk. Many of them are people he’s known for years.

“I don’t want to get so large that we lose that,” he said. “The challenge is growing and still maintaining all of that … that’s important to me, and we’re going to uphold that.”

2021

Next year is full of challenges and opportunities. Henslee plans to add a few more drop off locations in the next few months, and to add a local bakery to the farm’s online store. They are hoping to get a license to bottle milk, and want to add a walk in freezer and more cold storage infrastructure overall next year.

Hawkins is also hoping to invest in infrastructure and equipment on her farm. This fall, she dedicated time and money to improving her soil, and she applied for a grant to help cover the cost of some small scale equipment to help with things like turning over garden beds and handling compost.

In 2021, she plans to have a fairly large CSA again. She’s anticipating that there will still be people trying to avoid grocery stores. She is hoping to get into the same farmers market next year. Hawkins usually grows a wide variety of crops for her CSA, and picks a few things that she knows will sell well at farmers markets.

If the pandemic begins to wane in 2021, Bundu is expecting to see more customers and sales at his store. Next year, he is planning to grow less bell peppers. He wants to add candy onions and yam leaf to his crops.

For harvest season next year, he is hoping to hire at least two or three people to help. He figures that if he and two or three other people can make it out to the fields to harvest a few days each week, they may not need to be there every day.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that I’m willing to undertake, because my hope is that it will eventually pay off,” Bundu said.

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