Innovation amid a crisis: Local farms, markets find new ways to distribute produce

Verdegreens Farms now offers $45 Farmboxes with produce from neighboring local farms including Lone Star Mushrooms and Atkinson Farms with pickup available at six Greater Houston area locations. (Courtesy Verdegreens Farms)
Verdegreens Farms now offers $45 Farmboxes with produce from neighboring local farms including Lone Star Mushrooms and Atkinson Farms with pickup available at six Greater Houston area locations. (Courtesy Verdegreens Farms)

Verdegreens Farms now offers $45 Farmboxes with produce from neighboring local farms including Lone Star Mushrooms and Atkinson Farms with pickup available at six Greater Houston area locations. (Courtesy Verdegreens Farms)

Due to decreases in demand for fresh produce as a result of temporary restaurant closures, many local farmers and market proprietors have found innovative ways to adapt to the times.

Verdegreens Farms owner Billy Trainor said his business took a hit after restaurants—the farm’s primary customer—closed their doors in late March due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit and [officials] issued the order to shut down all the restaurants, we were looking at a pretty grim situation with basically half to two-thirds of our business drying up,” Trainor said.

It was under this pressure that Trainor said he was inspired to tap into an entirely new pool of consumers through Farmbox. According to Trainor, Farmbox allows Verdegreens and partnering Greater Houston area farms to distribute pre-packaged cases of fresh produce directly to consumers.The $45 box can be picked up by customers at six Greater Houston-area locations.

“We realized we had to create the demand that previously existed through the restaurants, so we called up all the people that we knew from the farmers market, contacts that we had made in the local industry, ... and asked them, ‘How much do you have available? How much do you do? What price?’” he said.

According to Trainor, the boxes received an overwhelmingly positive response, with more than 1,000 boxes sold within the first few weeks of distribution. Now in their sixth week of distribution, Trainor said he has more than offset the initial losses his business felt from the outbreak.

Also participating in Farmbox is Michael Frederick, owner of Houston-based Lone Star Mushrooms. Frederick, too, said his business has become very successful through the new program despite its loss in restaurant clientele.

“People love the fact that it's kind of a guessing game of what's in the box, [although] they have general idea,” he said. "It gives them something to do—to try new recipes [and] try out new dishes with items they may have never even cooked with before. They love the venture of it as well.”

Although Lone Star Mushrooms still expects to return to a restaurant-focused business model post-pandemic, Frederick said he expects the return to normalcy to be gradual. In the meantime, Frederick said the farm will continue to offer mushroom-related products such as supplements, jerky and at-home growing kits, in addition to continued participation in the Farmbox.

“I don't know what the new normal is,” Frederick said. “[But] I get a lot of people that ask if we're going to continue the Farmboxes when this is over, and because of that we probably will.”

Likewise, Mike Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Farms in Spring, said he began selling boxes of produce to restaurants at the onset of the pandemic.

“[When] the restaurants that we sell to [began] buying these produce boxes of pre-made, uncooked, raw vegetables that we had and they were selling them—they kind of bailed us out as a local farm,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson, whose produce is also available via Farmbox, said he will also continue to supply the farm’s produce for as long as customer demand is there.

“If they want to buy it, we’ll sell them, as long as there’s a market for it," he said.

Like local farms, market proprietors such as the weekly Tomball Farmers Market have also come up with new ways to connect vendors with patrons. According to TFM Executive Director Michelle Bundy, the market’s brief shutdown from mid-March to early April inspired her to take the organization online.

“When we first shut down, we started our TFM online Facebook group and essentially that way we could connect patrons with all of our vendors in one spot," she said.

Bundy said the online forum allows customers to preorder items for pick-up from vendors, potentially reducing the amount of time spent in-person. Since reopening on April 11, the market has implemented additional social distancing measures by increasing the walking space for customers to 21 feet, adding hand washing stations and providing hand sanitizer.

The Tomball Farmers Market is open Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and space has been made to safely accommodate 17 additional vendors, starting May 9. The market now expects to hold around 45 vendors.

“We’re excited to add that many spaces because that's roughly all of our vendors that want to attend right now," Bundy said.



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