Plans for PA russell redding

We know good things can come out of challenging times.

I am grateful for our farmers and food system workers who have responded so well to COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Adapting out of necessity, some farmers markets and on-farm markets say changes they’ve made will become permanent because, it turns out, the changes are good for business.

“We will continue to offer curbside service forever. Clearly there is a need,” said Kay Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Farm Market in Biglerville.

At the start of this pandemic, Hollabaugh served lines of curbside cars, and the store was still open and following CDC sanitation guidelines.

“I’ve never worked so hard for our business as I did in March, April and May,” Hollabaugh said.

“But it was gratifying. Customers gave tips and mailed thank you cards.

“It makes me emotional. We were working like maniacs, but people saw it.”

In Pennsylvania, our front-line workers proved critical in providing food access at a time when we knew less about the virus. So many went above and beyond, adjusting business practices, working with smaller staffs and buying extra supplies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And we all must remain focused on these efforts.

When Hollabaugh Farm Market’s county turned green, curbside service fell by 50%. People went into the store.

“Now we ratcheted up sanitation even more. We wipe carts after every customer,” Hollabaugh said. “It was hard to find sanitizing wipes. It was nerve-wracking and quite expensive. Our staff is masked at all times. We’ve installed Plexiglas. It has been stressful and labor intensive to stay in compliance.”

By July, curbside had fallen to 10%, serving mostly older folks who don’t want to get out of their car. This style of shopping works well for customers with mobility issues and Hollabaugh will continue the service.

The $23 million PA Farm Bill signed in 2019 encourages the advancement of new ideas in many agriculture sectors. In the same spirit, across Pennsylvania, farmers selling direct to consumers are answering COVID-19 mitigation challenges with promising innovations.

In response to COVID-19, Ben Wenk of Three Springs Fruit Farm in Aspers, says the farm launched an online business, Keystone Sutler, that will enhance its farmers market pre-order business, ship boxes of products anywhere in the United States and offer home delivery of fresh items produced on the farm. He sees the market changing permanently.

“Looking beyond 2020, people are going to continue to expect to have these things show up at their door,” Wenk said. “We’re looking forward to Keystone Sutler bailing us out in 2020 and being a part of our business going forward.”

Wenk is looking at the long game. In the spring, he started to think about how COVID-19 would change this year’s market sales. The peach trees produce the usual amount, so he’s locked into volume; he can’t cut costs by growing less.

“Our goals for Keystone Sutler started with pressure to sell big volumes of perishable things from the farm,” Wenk said. “Home delivery service will solve some short-term goals for the farm — sell peaches and tomatoes before they go bad.”

The farm already has six years of online business experience through pre-orders at the farmers markets it serves in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Customers order a crate of peaches, apples or tomatoes and pay online. The order is boxed and customers pick up on market day. The service became more popular with COVID-19 because it means less time in line and helps address social-distancing requirements.

At the markets, he found customers devoted to supporting local agriculture, a trend I think will continue.

“People seem more interested in spending their money with local farmers and artisans,” Wenk said.

He has seen fewer people at farmers markets, but individuals are buying more.

Farmers markets and on-farm markets became first responders to COVID-19, showing extraordinary engagement and interest in providing safe access to life-sustaining food and innovations that respond to customer needs.

Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of Agriculture aim to broaden access to fresh, healthy food choices with $10 million in grants through the Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

Food retailing businesses impacted by COVID-19 may apply for a grant for higher operating costs related to cleaning and social distancing; renovation and new construction related to COVID-19; equipment that improves availability of quality fresh food, such as additional refrigeration; personal protective equipment such as plastic glass dividers; investment in online platforms; and other one-time or increased expenses related to COVID-19.

Previously this program was for grocery stores, but it expanded to include corner stores, convenience stores, neighborhood markets, bodegas, food hubs, mobile markets, farmers markets, on-farm markets, urban farms, and food aggregation centers with a direct connection to direct-to-consumer retail outlets.

To be eligible, more than 70% of sales must be from staple, perishable foods to consumers.

The retailer must serve customers living in a low-to-moderate income area.

Eligible applicants must accept SNAP and WIC or have plans to accept them.

Applications will be accepted through the Department of Agriculture until Aug. 14.

Innovations that better align agriculture with the needs of the consumer and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic like Kay and Ben shared, provide access to fresh, healthy food close to home and are just a few of the good things coming out of these challenging times.

Russell Redding is Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture.