Farms, ranches pivot sales to consumers

04/29/2020

Many ranchers and farmers in West Marin have had to re-envision their business models this spring, finding new ways to sell their products after their large buyers disappeared overnight. 

Across agricultural sectors, reaching the consumer locally and directly has proven the key to success in the time of the pandemic. Countywide, farmers’ markets are seeing increased sales, a flurry of new mail delivery programs came online and community supported agriculture programs are cropping up everywhere. 

How much individual producers have had to pivot depends on how heavily they relied on the industries that prepared food for large groups of people. Some farmers who sold entirely to restaurants saw 100 percent of their revenue evaporate; for others already making direct sales through farm stands, the change was less severe.

Still, more than half of Marin’s producers have been heavily impacted, according to Vince Trotter, the sustainable agriculture coordinator for Marin’s cooperative extension of the University of California. 

“At the same time, there has been this spike in local demand for local meat, produce and dairy—but that doesn’t mean that farms and ranches are in the clear. There is time and expense involved to make that shift from one market to another,” he said. 

For these three sectors—meat, produce and dairy—the factors at play are different, compelling a variety of shifts not only in ways to move product but also in the production itself. 

For the meat industry in particular, “Wholesaling has almost completely evaporated,” Mr. Trotter said, requiring ranchers to prepare more product for the typical household buyer.  

Mark Pasternak, who operates Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, which sells poultry, beef, pork and rabbit, said this is precisely the change he has had to make. Previously, restaurants made up 95 percent of sales: now, he sells minimal product to two San Francisco restaurants. 

The other 5 percent of his sales were to farmers’ markets, and that revenue stream has become more lucrative. “Farmers' markets are the one bright spot,” he said. “The farmers’ markets are doing well because everyone is cooking at home, buying their own meat, fruits and vegetables.” 

Ms. Pasternak staffs a booth at the twice-a-week Civic Center market and one at the Ferry Building, where strict social distancing guidelines are in place. Even though customers must wait in lines spaced out six feet from one another and Mr. Pasternak has to bag what they want without them touching it first, he said sales have tripled in the past month. 

Like many producers, he also recently added a mail delivery component to help recover from the loss of large buyers. Although he hasn’t closed the gap, he noted that the price points for sellers are better for direct, retail sales. 

One result of these widespread changes is a strain on meat processors in the region, Mr. Trotter underscored. 

“Slaughter plants are at maximum capacity, and then the local cut-and-wrap facilities are at maximum capacity,” he said. “To bring more meat to market, it has to pass through the gauntlet of processing. We don’t have the local infrastructure anymore to rapidly increase the amount that’s moving through those channels.”

Mr. Trotter explained that ranchers in Marin often rely on three channels: selling live animals at auction that go on to be finished and processed by someone else as part of the more industrial supply chain, selling to wholesale buyers that purchase whole carcasses, and selling direct to consumers, which requires extra processing through a cut-and-wrap business. 

Along with the closures of schools and institutions, corporate campuses and other large buyers that prepared large amounts of food are shut down, Mr. Trotter said. That puts a lot of pressure on the smaller processors.

Mr. Pasternak said he recently switched from one overwhelmed processor in Santa Rosa to a new one, a butcher shop that recently expanded and was eager for his business. 

Meanwhile, produce growers have their own set of challenges and opportunities. 

In Bolinas, Star Route Farms pivoted in March from selling to restaurants to a 1,000-share C.S.A. program with distribution across the Bay Area. The remainder of its sales, 20 percent, continues to come from farmers’ markets. 

The University of San Francisco stepped in to help Star Route, which it purchased in 2017, setting up a website to get the C.S.A. off the ground. “It’s been taxing,” said Annabelle Lenderink, the farm’s operation manager. 

Several miles away on the Big Mesa, second-season farmer Scott Chang-Fleeman has started a 60-person C.S.A. and hopes to expand it as the season goes on. During an interview with the Light on March 17, the day after the first shelter order, he said was sowing seeds that he had no idea if he would even harvest. But a rush of support for his C.S.A. program, which is serving buyers in West Marin, the East Bay and San Francisco, has since made him feel more secure: the bulk of his operating costs for the season are now covered. 

“Pretty much every single aspect of the farm has changed this season: it feels like my first season farming again,” he said. “Last year, I focused on less than a dozen crops, but now I’m planting over 30. People get bored week-to-week without variety. I had to increase diversity a lot.”

The shift is causing some strain—he bought a delivery van and is faced with administrative logistics—but he said a C.S.A. was always something he wanted to do.

For the vegetable farmers who already had a direct line to customers, demand has gone up exponentially. 

Mickey Murch, who helms Gospel Flat Farm in Bolinas, has seen demand at his roadside farm stand double. He attributes this both to a change in habits—individuals are taking more at a time and maybe buying for a friend, or several—and his perception that there are more people living in Bolinas full-time, camped out in a second home. He remained optimistic about providing for the town, but said it has been a struggle to ensure his small staff has enough time to harvest and plant.

Molly Meyerson, the owner of Little Wing Farm in Point Reyes Station, said she can’t keep her farm stand stocked. Though it was previously her primary outlet, now she is preparing 40 boxes a week on a first-come, first-served basis to meet the desire for more security. 

“It hasn’t been too bad, but it is an extra amount of work to pack up the boxes and to do the website. It’s definitely nicer and more convenient to have people pick what they want. But the boxes are providing an important service for people. Because there’s so much need for food, we feel the pressure to provide,” she said. 

Ms. Meyerson said she and her staff are taking precautions. “Not that much has changed for our farming routine, since we are typically spread out to do our tasks and in an open-air environment,” she said. “The hardest part has been to do the work we are doing with a mask, which is uncomfortable, and extra sweaty when it’s hot and can hinder breathing.” 

Mr. Trotter said that widespread shifts in consumer habits are at play countywide, driving people to further support their local farmers. He described the shift as being threefold. 

“First, people maybe don’t want to go to a crowded grocery store. There’s also the sense that if it didn’t travel from Georgia or Mexico or some other distant place, it didn’t have to get handled by so many people,” he said. “And third, there is community spirit. I hear this from people: they don’t want to see their community businesses—whether it’s a book shop or a dairy farm—go down.”

Albert Straus, the C.E.O. of Straus Family Creamery, said the company did not take the hit that conventional milk producers elsewhere in the country did. His milk has not been poured out. 

That’s in part because grocery stores have always been his main way to move product, though there have been some losses of mid-sized purchasers, like schools, restaurants, ice cream shops and coffee shops.  

At first, he said, retail expanded, covering those losses. But more recently, as grocery stores have started rationing and limiting customer numbers, Mr. Straus said demand has backed off. 

In order to keep prices steady for his producers, Mr. Straus said he decided this week to lower production by 10 percent across the Marin and Sonoma dairies that feed his business. By lowering production slightly, he can ensure he isn’t glutting the market.

At a Marin Conservation League meeting last week in which producers across the region discussed how the pandemic has impacted their businesses, Mr. Straus looked to a different future. 

“Looking at the bigger picture, since we’ve been a society that has imported a lot of our food—50 percent of our fruit, a third of our vegetables, 11 percent of our beef, 80 percent of our lamb, and over 90 percent of our seafood—I think it’s really an opportunity to look at local food systems that are good for the planet and good for the community,” he said. 

Mr. Trotter offered his hopes for the future, too: “I can tell you what I hope the outcome of all of this is: I hope that folks who are reawakening their appreciation for locally produced food will continue their support even after the interruptions to the large supply chain have passed.”