by Catie Joyce-Bulay
As Maine continues its multi-phase reopening plan for businesses, farmers like Mike and Christa Bahner have been adapting to new regulations and getting creative in how they do business while continuing to grow.
Mike said at the start of the season, everyone was concerned what the summer would look like for businesses. “A lot of farmers sell to locals and a lot to summer folks and tourists, especially those who own a home and do a lot of cooking.”
Mike, who spent four years working on a vegetable farm learning the trade, began Bahner Farms in 2009 with Christa, who has a degree in plant and soil science. Since the summer season began, they have seen strong sales at the farm stand and a slight decline in farmers market sales.
The year started strong with their winter buying club, which they began five years ago after a more traditional winter CSA wasn’t bringing in enough revenue and losing vegetables to storage. They email an order form with a weekly newsletter for everything they have available that week, including their storage crops, winter harvest greens, fresh bread from a local bakery and local chicken eggs.
“The buying club was at a comfortable scale – very little growth, but we were fine with that,” Mike said. “It was enough winter income to keep a part-time employee. A good week was 40 to 50 orders, then after COVID-19, we saw 100 orders with order sizes doubling. Business quadrupled overnight. Our online ordering system was not really scalable like that.”
After a busy two weeks scurrying to process orders and fill out paperwork, they realized they needed a new system. They changed over and set up their online store within 48 hours.
Along with learning stricter sanitation standards and new technology, they needed to figure out the logistics of selling from their farm stand and retail greenhouse, where they grow a large variety of vegetable, herb and flower starts. Both opened May 1.
In order to maintain safe distancing, this year the farm stand is operating in a contact-free set-up where customers walk up to a window to order – “kind of like an ice cream stand,” Mike said.
The greenhouse allows up to two customers to enter at a time to select their plants; they pay at the stand. All employees wear masks or shields and maintain a high level of sanitation.
They dialed back their flower starts and increased vegetable seedlings to accommodate potential increased sales. They also took pre-orders for seedlings, which have been a large part of the farm’s business from its start.
Since it opened in 2013, their farm stand has grown steadily. Last year it accounted for about 50% of their revenue. “We’re on a state route, so it’s a very good location for on-farm marketing,” Mike said of the stand, located on Route 3, five miles west of coastal Belfast. “Last year we had an amazing year. It was the first year we had it staffed full-time and we felt it made a huge difference.”
Bahner Farm grows a variety of organic vegetables, what Mike calls a “classic farm stand crop,” including a few perennials, such as asparagus and berries, with a large focus on salad greens grown on six cultivated acres, including a 10,000-square-foot high tunnel and two greenhouses.
They also sell through Daybreak Growers Alliance CSA, a multi-farm-owned CSA they’ve been a part of since its start in 2018, becoming co-owners last year with Colleen Hanlon-Smith, of Locust Grove Orchards, and Adrienne Lee, of New Beat Farm. Daybreak pulls products from about 20 different farms, with the option of different sizes and add-ons and also does some wholesale.
Farmers markets were a big unknown this season, but Mike, who sells at the Camden, Northeast Harbor and Bar Harbor-Eden farmers markets, credited the Maine Association of Farmers Markets with preparing both farmers and the public.
“They really stepped into the role assertively,” he said. “They have been the mediator or gatekeeper between state guidelines and requirements and farmers markets and customers.” He said the association purchased signage and hand sanitizer, and set out clear guidelines for customers to follow.
“Lots of farmers markets around the state are hoping to set a positive tone from the start,” Mike said. He joined the markets a month later than usual this year since he was selling so much at the farm stand. He noted that although sales have been pretty good, attendance is down.
After the pandemic they will continue with stricter sanitation protocols, Mike said, which he credits his wife Christa for researching and implementing. “We’ve always been very clean and organized, but with something like this goes a little more effort into cleaning and packaging,” he said. “I can’t really see us not sticking to all the sanitation protocols. It’s all good ag practices.
“It’s important to do everything we can to make everybody feel safe,” he added, noting that a small minority of customers have complained of the changes, but that the majority of customers have been “incredibly nice, very grateful and sweet to staff. We’re just trying to provide a safe environment for people – my personal politics don’t matter.”