by Sally Colby

With everything except essential businesses closed, what about farms that market products through CSAs, farmers markets and on-farm stores? Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), has some tips for handing marketing challenges resulting from COVID-19.

One important step all businesses should take is developing a continuity of business plan for injury, illness and retirement. “Write the plan as if someone were replacing you,” said Smith-Brubaker. “Think about how you would ensure your business would continue with continuity of service. Document all the details of your physical farm inventory, equipment, key contacts, suppliers, family and employees.” Businesses should develop or enhance standard operating procedures for crops, food safety and human resources.

Smith-Brubaker said one reason small farms should have a continuity of business plan in place is because such farms may be at greater risk if the owner is the sole caretaker. A written plan will facilitate another family member or neighbor to provide better assistance in the event the owner requires isolation or treatment due to COVID-19. The farm owner or manager should communicate the plan to family or someone who can step in and manage the operation.

The continuity of business plan should include COVID-19-specific information for deliveries. “Create signage to easily identify drop-off points,” she said. “If you’re expecting a delivery, put a sign at the end of the farm lane with specific instructions. If you do have to interact with the delivery driver, keep the recommended distance of at least six feet.” Think through every step of the operation, including how to honor social distancing among everyone on the farm, and implement guidelines for your own family as well as employees and customers.

Make sure employees who continue to work understand any precautions being taken prior to coming to the farm. Provide hand washing guidance and make sure employees know where to find hand washing facilities. “All sick employees must stay at home,” said Smith-Brubaker. “We know this is especially hard for small farms, but it must be done. If employees complain of being sick, it’s important they don’t come to work. Everything they do during non-work hours will come to work with them the next day.”

CSAs: If farms marketing products via CSAs involve customers coming for pickup, reconsider delivery methods. “Consider alternate locations that could allow drive-thru for pickup,” said Smith-Brubaker. “Put up signs and information on websites and social media to explain any changes, delivery options or extra precautions.” Consider staggering pickup times.

PASA is encouraging the concept of “pre-order, pre-pay, pre-pack.” For farm businesses with online ordering, this will be fairly simple. An ideal set-up would allow customers to pay via website, email or phone to eliminate direct handling of money and credit cards. Another option is to place a box for customers to drop off money.

Some farms might choose to deliver to customers or prepare orders ahead of time so customers can grab and go. Farms that ask customers to return boxes may want to ask that boxes are not returned until further notice to eliminate that point of contact.

On-Farm Markets: For on-farm markets that remain open, Smith-Brubaker suggested using signage requesting that customers don’t handle food, and make that easier by pre-packaging fresh and prepared food items. Pre-packaging bags of fruits, vegetables and other items will help limit shoppers’ handling of food and keep customers moving. If the establishment includes an eating area (indoors or outside), remove tables and chairs so customers aren’t tempted to congregate.

Designate certain people who will only handle produce and any other food items. Anyone handling money should not handle food products, and should take extra measures (perhaps wearing gloves) while working with money. Pay close attention to sanitizing all contact surfaces. Disinfect all door handles and knobs, floor mats, steering wheels, warehouse equipment and any other common points of contact. Sanitize common gathering places such as offices, lunch rooms and locker facilities.

Eliminate all indoor and outdoor areas so there’s no temptation for employees to congregate. Consider staggering meal times to provide more space and discourage employees from gathering. Encourage employees to practice social distancing at all times.

Instruct employees to not handle customers’ reusable bags, and suggest to customers that their bags should be washed after each use. Remember to disinfect the credit card machine, counters, shopping baskets and anything another person has touched. If possible, limit public access to restrooms, and if restrooms are open, clean them frequently.

Farmers Markets: Farmers market setups should be altered to maintain distance and to limit food and money handling. For markets with multiple vendors, stands should be separated by at least six feet to limit crowding. “Even though we’re considered essential businesses and we can stay open, common sense says that if you have limited space, you should limit the number of people who can be in that space at one time,” said Smith-Brubaker. Managers of some markets may take care of that issue by limiting the number of customers allowed in the market at one time.

“Producers should come to their market site at the regular time and set up a table next to their truck with bags and labeled orders,” said Smith-Brubaker, adding that some markets are recommending producers remain in their vehicles with the windows closed and work out a system to provide products.

For the near future, consider omitting commonly used display items such as tablecloths, wicker baskets and wooden boxes. Although the goods in your display may not reflect the ideal concept of an attractive market display, eliminating extra surfaces that can potentially become vectors is the best option for now.

Be sure to sanitize tables regularly and do not provide any food samples. PASA recommends packaging produce rather than allowing customers to sort through to make selections. Make sure farmers market employees fully understand any temporary measures being taken.

If your farmers market is temporarily relocated due to COVID-19, contact your state to determine whether or not you need to obtain a new license.