They’re crediting the success to figuring “this online thing out” right away. Michigan responded.
Ann Arbor, MI — Unstable markets have hit Michigan’s farms hard during the coronavirus pandemic, and, as The ’Gander reported, federal aid has failed to make a meaningful impact on farmers and ranchers so far. But some small farms and CSAs in the state have been able to pivot operations and lean on strong community relationships to make it through.
The ’Gander checked in with one farm in Southeast Michigan whose strong community support has helped them avoid the need to apply for federal or state funding so far. But they’re still watching the state of the industry carefully as they cultivate a safe, welcoming environment for the visitors who come for their farm-fresh produce and delicious breads and pastries.
White Lotus Farms in Ann Arbor is an educational nonprofit exploring the latest methods in sustainable farming, humane care for animals, and small-scale agri-business. They say it’s “all about [their] relationships with customer and community.”
White Lotus was started in 2007 with a single aim in mind: to offer the best artisan breads, cheeses, and produce in Southeast Michigan. But in 2016, the farm gave up wholesale so their team could concentrate on their “true love,” small batch superior products sold directly to customers at White Lotus and other farmers markets.
That move ended up paying off in the pandemic economy. The ’Gander talked to B. Love Davis, a baker at White Lotus (who’s also worked as everything from cheesemaker to gardener on the farm), about how their close ties with the local community have helped them weather COVID-19 while some other Michigan farms struggle.
Cultivating Community, Among Suppliers and Customers
“So right away, we figured this online ordering thing out,” Davis said, “like, ‘Oh, well, people are going to want to order online and pick stuff up.’ So we put a lot of emphasis, a lot of emphasis, on developing the online purchasing scenario.
“And we also actually thought about a lot of our other farms that we have been working with and around for years at the market, so we asked if they would like to be involved in that online thing. A few different old and new farms and small businesses gave us their products to sell for them.”
That move made a huge difference for some farmers and entrepreneurs within the local food system.
“It was really sweet, you know, it was a big part of what we tried to do,” Davis said, “which was create something that could keep us all moving. And we heard directly from people that it was helpful.
“We got a call from one really old-school apple farmer in the area. He said he wouldn’t have been able to pay his mortgage if it wasn’t for selling at this market in April. And that’s when it was really rough, the end of the first month.”
In addition to establishing an online ordering system, Davis said White Lotus also pivoted operations to expand their outdoor marketplace to allow for comfortable social distancing, since the farm is bigger than other local markets.
“We expanded the way we presented the items,” he said, “ … We moved [our farm carts] all about 20 to 30 yards away from each other and made a walking path that you could go through in a big open area where you could check out, and then marked off the spots where people would stand with cones. And it was really great. People could order, come and pick up, and come out here and shop without being close to other people.”
And the care the White Lotus team put into setting up a welcoming, open environment was felt and appreciated by their customers.
“There was that first month where we were all hustling pretty hard to get the systems in place and to figure out how to do the online ordering and how to do the drop-offs and pickups,” Davis said. But now, he said, he and the managers, farmers, gardeners, cheesemakers, bakers, and other employees of White Lotus are all working as hard as they generally do in the heat of the season.
“We attribute that to people feeling safe out here. And also they could come out here and walk around and sit down with friends and be far enough from everyone,” Davis said. “We’ve been cultivating a safe space from day one for people to enjoy themselves. And people kept saying, ‘Thanks for doing this. It doesn’t feel so abnormal now.’”
Eyes on the Industry … and the Election
Davis said he hasn’t heard managers mention a need to apply for federal or statewide coronavirus relief aid yet, although business has slowed in recent weeks. He said if they did have aid coming in, they would probably invest it in basic infrastructure like transportation or their online ordering system.
But just because White Lotus farmers haven’t applied to any federal aid themselves doesn’t mean they haven’t been watching the state of the industry as PPP has failed to reach other farms in the state.
“Well, I spoke with a few other people who did some pastry orders from us and they said they were doing okay. But I would say we’re an exception in keeping it profitable,” Davis said. “It’s tough to keep safety and livelihood balanced. … I would like the situation to be handled better with more thoughtfulness.”
And he said his experience at the farm over the past few months has definitely solidified his plans to vote Democrat this November, especially in the context of Vice President Joe Biden’s plans to strengthen the agriculture industry here in Michigan.
Biden’s got a plan to pursue a trade policy that works for American farmers, so they can stop paying heavy prices for Trump’s tariffs like they did in 2018 and 2019 and rely on a stable farm income. Too, Biden’s focused on fostering the development of regional food systems — something that went very right for White Lotus during the pandemic.
“That seems wise, because I know that system’s stressed out,” Davis said. “ … I have a lot of respect and regard for people who work to start their own businesses and make a living doing something they feel passionate about. And people that I’ve met that do that here are those kinds of people. They really feel passionate about having businesses that don’t stress the environment and provide people with things that are good and nourishing.
“… So I hope there’s some more conscious specific plan about how to deal with these kinds of things,” Davis said, “and maybe some kind words to bring folks together to understand that we share a burden as people. We’re not against each other.”
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