Kelby Young was busy packaging up organic greens at his Olde Haven Farm in Chelsea on Tuesday morning and wondering what he was going to do with the hogs he had slaughtered and intended to sell to restaurants in central Maine.
He’s not alone. Around Maine, small farms that normally sell everything from meat to cheese to baked goods to regular wholesale customers are dealing with indefinitely canceled orders as restaurants reduce their services to takeout and delivery or shut their doors entirely.
Allison Lakin, owner of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese in Waldoboro, went from 40 wholesale customers to just two this week, leaving her with a surplus of cheese and meats. Many of her friends who farm and homestead have found themselves in similar situations, she said.
To make matters worse, some local indoor farmers markets that normally take place around the state are canceled, leaving farmers with even fewer options to get their food into the hands of Mainers. Young knows that firsthand. In addition to the hogs, Young is also left with greens he normally sells at the United Farmers Market of Maine in Belfast, which has been canceled for this coming weekend.
As confirmed cases of coronavirus strain COVID19 in Maine grow and people are urged to avoid social contact as much as possible to help slow the spread of the virus, these farmers are looking for ways to turn this business problem into a solution for fellow Mainers.
Getting the food to Mainers
Young, like many farmers around Maine, decided to open his Chelsea farmstand early this year instead of waiting for the traditional April spring opening.
“We want to give people the option to shop local during this time, and as long as [people are] healthy feel free to stop in,” Young said. “We will also be offering a delivery service to folks who feel safer staying at home during this time.”
Lakin has decided to increase items sold directly from her farm store to use up her sudden and unexpected food surplus. Using food she makes and raises, Lakin is transforming her cheeses and meats into cheesecakes, stews, pastas and meat pies for prepared meals that can be reheated at home.
Farmers are also taking every precaution they can to keep their farm stands clean and safe. For instance, before opening the farm store, Young went through and did a thorough cleaning. All of the meats and vegetables they are selling are prepackaged, which cuts down on the handling by different people. All surfaces will also be wiped down throughout the day.
If people are practicing self-quarantine or self-isolation, Lakin and Young have said they will deliver food directly to their local customers. At their farms, they will also bring pre-ordered food out of their stores and meet customers at their cars.
“People can call in to place an order and pay with a credit card,” Lakin said. “If they don’t want to come into the store we will place it in a cooler for them outside the door.”
Social media to the rescue
With direct customer and wholesale sale options greatly limited, farmers are turning to social media to get the word out on what they have available and how best to access it.
Loni Hamner operates a small family homestead in Gardiner where she raises laying hens and sells fresh eggs from a stand in front of her property. This week, she said she turned to Facebook to let people know she has eggs and will even deliver them locally.
Young also used Facebook to let people know what’s for sale and how to contact him. In Hamner’s case, eggs are available at the small stand at the end of her driveway and can be paid for by leaving money at the stand.
For those wondering if a local farm might be open early or have the food you need, call the farm or check in with their social media accounts. Also, it’s important to note that some farmers markets are planning to continue to operate. Sign up for email newsletters from favorites to stay abreast of operating dates.
Moving forward, farmers in Maine are looking for more ways to connect directly with their customers and meet their new needs.
Hamner said she plans to start selling laying hens this year as she has already seen an increase of interest from people wanting to start raising their own food.
Lakin is working on an online shared spreadsheet database of farmers, their locations and their contact information. Moving forward during this time of limited direct-sales opportunities for Maine farmers, Lakin is hoping the information on her spreadsheet will help people looking for locally sourced food options connect with farmers and growers in Maine.
Young is currently working with someone to create an eCommerce site for his products.
“Pretty much we all want to do whatever we can do to feed our community,” he said.