How Central Ohio's Small-Scale Farmers are Adapting to the Pandemic

Nicole Rasul
Charlie and Kerissa Payne of Covey Rise Farms

In late April, the online store for Covey Rise Farms, a small meat producer in Delaware County, was mostly out of stock of its pastured lamb, pork, turkey and chicken. “We’ve probably fared better than some,” says Charlie Payne, who runs Covey Rise with his wife, Kerissa. Then, with a nod to the uncertainties of the upcoming growing season and beyond, he adds, “But there will surely be some interesting times ahead.”

After an initial shock following Ohio’s stay-at-home order in late March, farmers like Payne battened down to ride out the storm—a necessity in the often-turbulent agriculture industry.

Typically, much of Covey Rise Farms’ product goes to chefs in the ever-evolving Central Ohio restaurant community. Though the number varies by season, Payne says his farm’s meats can be found on the summertime menus of roughly a dozen Columbus restaurants.

With dine-in service terminated in the spring, Payne quickly saw orders from restaurant clientele plummet. However, purchases from local residents exploded on the farm’s online platform.

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“We’ve seen a 300 percent increase in overall sales for this normally slow time of year,” Payne says. His operation is heavily dependent on seasonally produced, pastured poultry, which is processed and, if not sold immediately, frozen to support sales throughout the year.

Ohio’s stay-at-home order also dramatically changed how Swainway Urban Farm goes about its business. Typically, restaurant sales account for roughly 75 percent of the Clintonville farm’s revenue in the first part of the year, says owner Joseph Swain. “Some restaurants were able to stay open for takeout, but we run a pretty high-end item, so we didn’t make it on limited menus.”

The urban farmer, who specializes in artisanal offerings like mushrooms and microgreens, calls the first week of Ohio’s restaurant closures “terrifying” for small-scale producers like him who count on eateries as a reliable source of income. However, like Covey Rise, Swain was able to swiftly adapt and credits his business’ diversified strategy as a lifesaver.

“We saw a pretty drastic increase in orders from groceries,” says Swain, whose produce can be found in retail outlets like the Bexley Natural Market, Lucky’s Market and Weinland’s Market. Swain also says his farm’s sales to outfits like Yellowbird Foodshed (which runs a CSA program) exploded, as did activity at the direct-to consumer stand he sets up on Saturday mornings in the parking lot of his storefront on Indianola Avenue.

Rob Phillips, a fourth-generation farmer who runs RL Valley Ranch, a cattle operation outside Athens, with his wife, Leah, says sales to shops like The Butcher & Grocer as well as direct-to-consumer purchases have comprised the bulk of his transactions during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The farmers that I’ve talked to who do direct-market sales have figured out how to adapt,” Phillips says. As consumers watched inventory on supermarket shelves shrink and meatpacking plants across the country become plagued by the virus outbreak, Phillips says he saw calls, texts and emails from residential accounts quickly accumulate. By late April, the rancher says direct-to-consumer sales, a relatively new outlet for him, comprised nearly 20 percent of RL Valley’s business.

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As the growing season—a time when producers like Swain and Payne traditionally manage booths at farmers markets—revs up, uncertainty lingers. “I want to say there will be no impact on farmers markets, but my gut tells me there will be,” says Payne, who is scheduled to sell at four markets this year. The first market where he was booked, slated to open in early May, has already postponed its kickoff.

Farmers markets are hanging on despite drastic changes in the way they operate, says Christine Hawks, manager of Worthington’s year-round farmers market. Hawks says 383 orders were placed during the first week her operation offered a preorder drive-thru after being deemed an essential business by the state. By mid-April, there were more than 900 orders. Other markets are following suit. The Clintonville Farmers Market, for example, launched a preorder, drive-thru market in late April.

Still, before Covid-19, Hawks says it was not unusual for several thousand people to amble by vendor booths in the springtime, and the mechanics of a new ordering system require an adjustment period. “A lot of producers and consumers are still trying to wrap their heads around preorder,” Hawks says.

Though some producers have fared well in the short term, only time will tell how the industry endures the impact from the coronavirus over the long haul. Payne says he is watching closely to see how slaughterhouses and others in the supply chain adapt over the coming months, noting that his animals are booked for processing one year out.

“We’ve got pigs and chicks on order for six months; hogs and lambs for one year,” Payne says. “We can’t just turn off a light switch and say, ‘Because restaurants closed, we can’t commit to them.’ Those animals still have to be fed and processed.”

“About 80 percent of our restaurants want a whole chicken, whereas 80 percent of our retail customers want parts—they want breasts, drums or thighs,” Payne adds, noting he’s unsure how he’ll continue to meet consumer demand based on the specifications he gave to his processor months prior.

At Swainway Urban Farm, Swain remains optimistic that resilient producers will not only survive the storm but grab new markets because of it. “We can’t afford not to grow food,” he says. “The plan is to grow food and then figure out how the hell we’re going to sell it. Through hard work and creativity, I know we’ll survive.”

Joseph Swain, left, and James Mann of Swainway Urban Farm package mushrooms for pickup.