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Local farmers prepare for second pandemic growing season

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Last year was one of adjustments and innovations for local farms as they faced an unknown future with a simple goal: survival.

As Connecticut marks one year since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, The Day followed up with some of the farmers who spoke with reporters last year at the start of the regional shutdown to reflect on 2020 and look ahead to 2021.

"The goal of 2020 was survival, and we survived," said Allyson Angelini, owner of Full Heart Farm in Ledyard. She said she took a lot of downtime in the slower parts of the year to catch up and recover from the stress and exhaustion of last year; in addition to the pandemic, farmers dealt with late and early frosts, droughts and flooding.

Angelini said she and her staff were fairly quickly able to implement curbside pickup and other various safety measures required last year, though hand sanitizer had been in short supply and they went through four gallons over the course of the season.

For her, the worst part was losing confidence because they plan and plant so far ahead — she placed an order of 12,000 tulip bulbs for the 2022 season last month — but had no idea what to expect in the short term.

Chris Bourne, co-owner of Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme, also experienced supply shortages. He said that the boom in interest in backyard chickens made it hard for him to purchase the equipment he needed for the farm's flock, with some items ordered in April but arriving in July.

With the grocery store shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, Bourne said business at the farm store was extremely busy. The farm also had to launch an online ordering system earlier than originally planned and navigate the logistics of shipping orders in addition to pickups at the store.

"We had to jump into (shipping) and learn that very quickly," he said. "We're a very small business and we're used to dealing with people in person or direct."

Karen Scott, owner of Scott's Yankee Farmer in East Lyme, said she had to rework the farm store to create enough space for customers to safely shop. The store opened May 1 with all produce outside, and the greenhouse was used as additional shopping space. Until the store closed for the season Dec. 31, all transactions were conducted through a doorway or window behind plexiglass.

"I definitely feel that interaction was just more difficult, that you were in a window or that you were on the other side of the plexiglass," she said. "We didn't have as much opportunity to interact with the customer as we always used to."

Scott created an online reservation system for all pick-your-own operations and reduced occupancy on the wagon rides. She said she missed going to winter farming conferences, which were either made virtual or canceled entirely, and she had to order seeds for the 2021 growing season via conference call rather than in person with her supplier.

Shortages of vaccines, seeds

In 2020, retailers found seeds flying off the shelves as the pandemic and its associated grocery shortages led to greater interest in home gardening and self-sufficiency. Angelini said she had to order her biggest batch of seeds one to two months early this year, and some of her items still were backordered or canceled.

To counteract that, she's had to order different varieties and crops than she normally offers. Some seeds, like eucalyptus, are even harder to find because last year's crops were decimated by wildfires and other extreme weather.

Angelini said an ongoing seed shortage or shipping delays will become an issue if there's a crop failure: if a round of carrot seedlings doesn't grow, a replacement order of seeds won't arrive in time to plant a backup crop.

Scott encountered only a few backordered items in her seed order, and in some cases, she was able to get the right seeds but in a different-sized package than she normally buys. However, she lamented the revised distribution schedule for the vaccine because most of her employees are in the 16-34 age group and will have to wait months to get their shots; farm workers originally had been in Phase 1c as essential workers.

She said the farm invested in several hand sanitizing stations and will continue to have those available for the public, but with the new vaccination schedule, it's hard to predict what operations will look like inside the farm store or for pick-your-own.

Looking forward

Bourne said his project for 2021 was to continue developing the online face of Four Mile River Farm. He said the farming operations haven't really changed during the pandemic, but if customers can't purchase the product because the online store doesn't work or don't know about the product because the farm isn't engaging with customers via social media, it all falls apart.

"We couldn't be more thankful to our customers," he said, commending their patience and flexibility through the changes. "Their way to getting to us was not easy anymore, and they could have very easily said, 'Well, you know what, I'm going to go to a big grocery or someone else online.'"

He said they're going to continue limiting their farmers market appearances to two markets rather than the seven they normally sell at. The farm also will continue offering specific cuts of chicken in addition to whole and half chickens, though that's more because of demand and convenience rather than the pandemic.

Scott said she'll likely utilize the greenhouse space again for produce sales. It was especially helpful during apple season because she could create more spacious and visually appealing displays of the many apple varieties compared to inside the farm store.

"I'm hoping by the time we open the beginning of May that we feel more comfortable with people being vaccinated that maybe we can let people in our store this year," she said. "We've left the plexiglass up in the doorways so we're ready to go again if we need to."

She also noted that the reservation system for pick-your-own allowed the farm to spread out customers throughout the day, which made business more predictable.

Returning this year to Full Heart is the farm collective, which gathered products from several Connecticut farms and businesses for curbside pickup in Ledyard or local delivery. Angelini said customer feedback and continual modifications made it so successful so quickly, and she was able to see that it was valued by the community.

While some of the first spring vegetables fell victim to single-digit temperatures earlier this year, the arrival of spring also means the first flower harvest, which Angelini said is her favorite time on the farm.

"It's exciting that in another month we'll be hauling in buckets of blooms," she said, counting off the thousands of tulip, daffodil, ranunculus and anemone bulbs she plants every year. "We get to deliver so much cheer to the community, and we have all this color after months of white and brown. I cannot wait for the bulbs to pop, and from there we just keep rolling."

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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