(05/12/20) BATON ROUGE, La. — Local produce farmers have been unsung heroes during the coronavirus crisis — continuing to safely provide a steady supply of fresh, healthy produce, despite sudden obstacles like closed restaurants, cancelled or modified drive-thru farmers markets, and the need for other distribution adaptations.
In many cases, producers have been pushed to their limits to keep up with increasing demands for locally grown products.
“The farmers markets and farmers are adapting,” said Carl Motsenbocker, LSU AgCenter horticulture professor and executive director of the Louisiana Farm to School Program. “Most of our horticultural farmers are entrepreneurs, and they see this as an opportunity.”
The AgCenter recently contacted a few farmers who have had direct connections to the AgCenter to find out how they’re adjusting to safely meet the needs of local customers while continuing to remain profitable.
“Restaurant sales made up about one-third to one-half of our sales, which dropped to almost nothing,” said Allison Guidroz, co-owner of Fullness Farm in Baton Rouge. “We quickly made a new website where people could order and then pick up their produce at markets, and it’s working well.”
Allison Guidroz and her husband, Grant Guidroz, had taken agricultural classes together at LSU. The first time either of them had grown anything was in an organic gardening course with Motsenbocker. Now, they grow vegetables, herbs and edible flowers for a living not far from the LSU campus.
Later, Allison Guidroz earned a master’s degree from the LSU College of Agriculture. Her graduate studies focused on soil health.
“That research reinforced the sustainable organic farming techniques we now use on the farm,” she said.
Owners of New Orleans-based River Queen Greens, like many other farmers, offer a portion of their production as shares to the public. Each share includes a box of vegetables or other farm products. Consumers typically pay up-front to receive boxes weekly during a growing season.
“We were lucky to have already launched a pre-ordered farm share program through Harvie — an online customizable CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) platform — the month before COVID started,” said Annie Moore, co-owner of River Queen Greens. “It was a relatively smooth market transition from restaurant sales to 100 percent online sales.”
Moore, now a mentor to other farmers, had previously participated in Grow Louisiana, an AgCenter-administered course that targets beginning horticulture farmers and provides business tools, educational resources and statewide networking opportunities.
River Queen Greens teamed up with other growers in the area who were losing business because of closing restaurants and immediately quadrupled their farm share capacity.
“Because we were not anticipating the huge demand for farm shares and local food this season, it's been quite a challenge just meeting the demand,” Moore said. “But we're doing well, and the business is flourishing.”
Alisha Andrews-Delahoussaye, co-owns and runs Blazing Star Farm in Lafayette, mainly growing fresh flowers with vegetables on the side. Her completion of the AgCenter Grow Louisiana program almost simultaneously coincided with the coronavirus outbreak and a subsequent shutdown of the Lafayette Farmers Market.
“A big benefit of the Grow Louisiana program was the networking with local growers — particularly at this time,” Andrews-Delahoussaye said.
“I didn’t have one before, but I had to set up a website about a month ago and launched a flower CSA,” she said. “I’ve been able to sell everything I’ve grown, and it’s allowed me to get back in touch with my regular customers.”
The AgCenter Farm to School Program and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry recently developed, and continue to update, a map and directory of local farms and businesses to help consumers find fresh foods like vegetables and meats near their homes.
“The map has over 30,000 views and more than 150 sellers listed in the directory,” said Johannah Frelier, manager of the Louisiana Farm to School Program. “There have been many positive comments from consumers — some saying how they wish they had this resource in their state — so it appears to be working well.”
The resources can be found online at http://www.ldaf.state.la.us/covid-19/under the “LA Farm Food Map and Directory” tab.
“The growers organized really early to change and adapt their distribution models,” said Anna Timmerman, AgCenter horticulture agent for New Orleans area parishes. “There is virtually no excess produce from our produce growers here.”
Even before the coronavirus, AgCenter agents and farmers had already developed symbiotic working relationships that have continued through the current crisis.
“Early on, they needed BMPs (best management practices) for handling food, and I conveyed that to AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari,” Timmeman said. “He developed a set of fact sheets that I got out to the growers.”
The publications are online. “Best practices to minimize COVID-19 risk while harvesting fresh produce” is at https://bit.ly/2Jf6wA0. “Best practices to minimize COVID-19 risk at the farmers market” is at https://bit.ly/2WSi6ZI. “Cleaning and disinfection of food-contact and touch surfaces for the COVID-19 virus” is at https://bit.ly/2UCp7Lz.
“COVID-19 literature from the LSU AgCenter gave me a good start on how to safely handle my flowers,” Andrews-Delahoussaye said. “Now, I make flower packages 24 hours in advance of customers picking them up.”
“We've implemented new sanitizing SOPs (standard operating procedures) for the farm share bins and are wearing masks and regularly washing hands and/or wearing gloves while harvesting and packing,” Moore said.
“Just before COVID, we planted about 20 avocado trees and 100 tomato plants from Dr. Joe Willis (AgCenter horticulturist) for his experimental research,” she said of plants placed on their farm. “We get to keep the produce, so it's a win-win.”
“We have had helpful experiences with LSU Ag people, including Dr. Joe Willis and Anna Timmerman,” Moore said. “We know they can continue to be helpful resources to us if we need them.”
Timmerman, who has a personal CSA share with River Queen Greens, says the AgCenter helped connect MarketMaker, an LSU AgCenter marketing program that links agricultural producers with potential buyers, with Market Umbrella, an expansion of the Crescent City Farmers Market, and with Dickie Brennan & Company, which has a new commissary kitchen that processes any remaining produce.
“The farmers are adapting and will have to continue to be very adept,” Motsenbocker said. “They have this entrepreneurial spirit, and we’re trying to help them be safe and to support their local farms, farm families and businesses.”
Ingenuity, aggregate efforts and hard work are big reasons why many local farmers of fresh produce are not only surviving during this crisis — but thriving.
Allison and Grant Guidroz with their daughter stand in a vegetable field. They own and operate Fullness Farm in Baton Rouge and sell vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Photo by Tiffany Roberts
Community supported agriculture share boxes are ready to be picked up by customers at Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge. For several months, the regular farmers market setup was converted to a drive-thru format. Photo by Randy LaBauve/LSU AgCenter
A diversity of mushrooms is for purchase at Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge. For several months, the regular farmers market setup was converted to a drive-thru format. Photo by Randy LaBauve/LSU AgCenter