Chris Bourne’s always loved animals. Growing up on Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme, he’s been caring for them since he was seven.
“It’s just me and the animals,” Bourne said. He’s been helping his mother and father out at Four Mile for over 30 years. “It’s great.”
Bourne’s relationship with the animals isn’t the only thing that’s great at Four Mile. During a time when the coronavirus pandemic is pressuring many small businesses, many Connecticut farmers have adapted and innovated to safely get their products to their customers.
And with new, more infectious COVID-19 strains starting to make their presence felt in Connecticut, local farms are more essential than ever. While grocery shopping indoors alongside others can give customers the jitters, farm stands and farmers’ markets provide an opportunity to shop fresh products outside, socially distanced and amidst smaller crowds.
“[COVID-19’s] got us on our toes. We’re getting through it,” Bourne said. “We just have to work harder.”
Farmers are always planning ahead, and the coronavirus kicked Four Mile’s future goals into motion early. The farm now offers a delivery service through online ordering. And though the farm’s taken a hit when it comes to the restaurant industry – Four Mile usually sells its meat in bulk to restaurants – community support has been high.
“We can’t do anything if we don’t have the customer. That’s been really evident this year,” Bourne said.
At Eddy Farm in Newington, Haley Billipp said they’re seeing 40% more action at their farm stand. People have told her that they feel safer shopping outside. The farm’s bouquet share subscriptions have also seen big spikes, as customers can order their flowers online and pick them up from a cooler.
“We had our best year ever by far at our farmstand. I have to say it’s because of the pandemic that this was far busier than usual, which surprised me,” Billipp said.
Eddy’s Farm did lose some revenue last year with selling flower cups because of weddings being cancelled, but Billipp said they’re expecting a better season in 2021, and she’s glad they can keep their employees with the help of the Paycheck Protection Program.
That’s also the case at Flamig Farm in Simsbury, which also needed a PPP loan to keep its employees. It was also the first time Flamig had to cancel all of its main attractions like haunted hayrides and visits from Santa. It didn’t earn any revenue from special events.
But the farm adapted. Owner Julie Christensen said their eggs sold out every day and the petting zoo remained a hit as families could keep distanced and outside while having fun. Christensen hopes that the farm will be able to do safe summer camps, as well as indoor events like birthday parties, in 2021.
“We were blessed that we could stay open and got through this year. It was okay for us,” she said.
That’s not to say that the farm industry hasn’t struggled. Connecticut’s dairy farmers were dumping hundreds of gallons of milk last year when their largest buyers, like schools and coffee shops, stayed closed.
Small locations like the Ryan Family Flower Farm in Simsbury, which sells flowers and vegetables, are still trying to get over the hump of losing their primary customers.
Owner Tim Ryan said his main buyers – women who want flowers on their office desk and men “buttering up the wives” – don’t come by that often anymore since everyone’s working from home. He gets more out of his landscaping business, Valley Landscaping, which has also taken a hit during the pandemic.
“I make more money mowing two lawns than if I go to a farmers’ market,” Ryan explained. He still loves the farm, and wants to focus solely on it when he retires from landscaping. “I’m losing money every year on [the farm], but I’m learning what I want to do. If I didn’t have the landscaping, I would’ve gone under many years ago.”
“Come buy some flowers. Tell the husbands they’re in trouble,” he added.
That’s why community support is so important. Chris Bassette of the Killam & Bassette Farmstead in South Glastonbury said that it’s been amazing how people now “know who we are and appreciate the fact that we’re making it as open and sanitary and small-scale.”
“We are doing better than we have been doing in the past, but we’ve also had 11 consecutive years of losses. Now we’re at a point where we’re gaining on that huge debt,” Bassette said.
The family farm – worked by Bassette, her husband, their five kids, and Henry Killam, their 90-year-old “spry” business partner – is the family’s only income. And they’ve done everything they can to help it survive COVID-19.
Even before the pandemic, the farm’s stand operated on an “honor system” where customers could make their purchases by leaving their money in a box or paying online. That means no contact with an employee. The model lends itself to the times.
Additionally, Killam & Bassette Farmstead now also does free contactless delivery, online ordering and pick up directly because of the coronavirus, and will most likely continue doing it all even after.
The stand also doesn’t just sell items from the family’s 80 acres. Bassette said different local businesses have their items for sale at the stand as well, as shopping local has never been so important to Connecticut’s small businesses.
She is optimistic that that will carry over into the post-coronavirus world, whenever that will be.
“The biggest hope we [and our farmer neighbors] have is that people remember us when this is all over,” Bassette said.