When Finegan Ferrebouf and her partner, Jason Gold, moved back to Austin in January with their one-month-old baby to start Steelbow Farm, the idea was to take their first year slowly, to ease back into life on the east side. With the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, things have not worked out for them as planned.
The couple has spent the better part of the last decade farming, most recently in Portland, Maine. When they decided to return to their roots in Central Texas, they signed a lease to take over farming operations from the couple who ran Tecolote Farm since the early '90s.
“It seemed smart at the time,” says Ferrebouf. “Their farm is a pretty turn-key operation…With the land-access box checked, it seemed like a good idea to move back.”
The business model had them initially ramping up slowly, and, like most other urban farms in and around Austin, they planned on generating most of their revenue by supplying local restaurants.
“We had just dropped off some of our first deliveries the weekend before restaurants started closing — our first delivery, and then it’s like, ‘And, we’re done.’”
Austin farms face uncertain future
The challenges Ferrebouf and Gold face in this drastically different business environment are not specific to newcomers. Carol Ann Sayle, along with her late husband, Larry Butler, and daughter Tracy Geyer have been running Boggy Creek Farm for almost 30 years.
“When all the restaurants went down, there went about 40 percent of our money,” says Sayle.
HausBar Farms owners Dorsey Barger and her wife, Susan Hausmann, feel the sudden closure of Austin restaurants with an even sharper acuity. “We had set up our whole farm business plan to not compete with our [East Austin] neighbors who all have farm stands,” says Barger. “We deal with just restaurants.”
“So many farmers who depend upon restaurant sales are really scrambling,” says Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms. “And it’s going to get worse in the next few weeks because the harvests are coming in. I’ve been talking to other farmers who have planted thousands of onions — and they need to find an outlet.”
Now that many Austin restaurants are indefinitely closed, urban farms all over the city are being forced to drastically alter their business models on the fly.
“Some of these farmers are trying to create a CSA, which they haven’t done before,” says Flynn. “They’re having to really pivot in a way that I don’t know they would do in any other situation, but they have to move their food.”
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription boxes are a popular method of selling farm fresh produce directly to consumers. Many of the larger or more established farms already have infrastructure in place to take and fulfill CSA orders, while others have found the model to be unwieldy or too administratively labor-intensive to work for farms in normal times.
Ferrebouf and Gold at Steelbow Farm decided early to not offer a box subscription, but current circumstances have them reconsidering.
“We needed to pivot and pivot pretty rapidly,” says Ferrebouf. “Katie [Pitre, owner of Tecolote Farm,] sent out an email that I thought was going to be to like 300 people, but it turned out to be like 1,500 people. We immediately got inundated with emails and phone calls asking, ‘Are you doing a CSA? Are you doing delivery?’ We were like, shit, we gotta figure this out.”
Ada Broussard with Johnson’s Backyard Garden, one of Central Texas’s largest and most prominent local farming operations, is astounded by the increase in demand for the farm's products.
“We actually had to shut down our sign-up page and stop accepting new members temporarily just so we could catch our breath,” says Broussard. “We nearly doubled the size of our CSA in a two week period.”
“Farms are all exempt from shelter at home,” she continues, “so people are asking, ‘Can we still get vegetables?’ And the answer is a resounding yes.”
The benefits of a CSA program like the one offered by JBG are obvious in our current moment of social distancing. “Not only are you getting it delivered so you don’t have to leave your home,” says Broussard, “but these are super nutritionally dense and fresh vegetables, so ideally they taste great, but also help keep you healthy.”
Getting produce into the hands of people
CSA programs, however, are only one answer to a large and multifaceted problem. Tracy Geyer at Boggy Creek already had a built-in solution. “The big difference between us and the urban farms especially right here is we have a farm stand on-site, and we’re very well known for that. We’re a direct source of food.”
“And the fact is that the field is 20 feet from the farm stand, so we are currently harvesting all through market and bringing in fresh stuff constantly,” adds her mother, Carol Ann. “It comes right out of the soil, and then it goes right to the farm stand, and then right into kitchens.”
Boggy Creek opened its farm stand on Wednesday, March 25, with the intention not to reopen until the weekend, but turnout was so high and sales so robust that they decided to open through the rest of the week as normal. Geyer, who normally gives farm tours, kept her distance from those spaced out in line, but spent the morning telling everyone about her dad and the history of the farm.
“We’re also helping other farms,” Carol Ann continues, “because we buy in meat from a lot of other ranchers. We buy in cheese, we buy in milk…. They were having trouble thinking about who was going to buy their stuff now, but we’ve been doubling our orders for their products. One lady [who produces the goat cheese at Bee Tree Farm] told me, ‘I think that your farm is going to save my farm.’”
“We’re not about to quit."
Entering what looks to be an especially bountiful spring harvest season, there remains universal worry that CSA’s, farm stands, and farmers markets won’t be enough to make sure all of this fresh food is sold before it spoils. Hope and confidence are in short supply in this new dystopia, but any longtime farmer will tell you that tenacity is in their DNA.
“For a couple days, I was really in shock,” says Barger at HausBar. “I just feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. I just feel this horrible sense of dread and injury. I’ve gone in and out of optimism and deep sadness and this gut-punch feeling. So then I just said to myself, we are going to go all out on this. We are just shifting our entire focus immediately.”
Soon, Barger will be offering what she calls her Farm to Neighbor program. Barger will send an emailed list of what is available, and customers will place their orders digitally using credit cards, so there will be no in-person exchange of money. When ready, Barger will put out the orders on a table set up outside their farm kitchen. “They can grab their things and go,” she says, “so we all keep our distances.”
For her part, Erin Flynn at Green Gate Farm is thinking in bigger terms, imagining a systemic solution that could carry over into a post-COVID-19 world. She proposes the establishment of neighborhood buying clubs, where neighbors pool their money and pay farmers to deliver regular, neighborhood-wide food drops.
“That’s the big question with me,” says Flynn. “Are we going to go back to our lives of convenience when this is over, or are we going to rethink the way we treat our local farms? Are we going to actually pay attention to how we develop land, how we use land? Are we going to make a difference?”
While those big questions remain on the horizon, for now, local farmers are focused on getting through this immediate crisis and making sure the community has ready access to their produce, which has been subject to rigorous sanitation protocols to ensure safety.
“We’re so proud to be farming right now,” says Boussard at JBG. “We had one message on social media today from a woman who’s immune compromised [and] currently going through chemotherapy, and she said, ‘I haven’t left my house in weeks. Your CSA box delivered to my door once a week is like the brightest thing that’s happening right now. Thank you for feeding me.'”
Steelbow Farm is currently a few weeks away from offering their take on a limited CSA program they’re calling Veggie Boxes. While details are still being worked out, Ferrebouf is hopeful. “I’m super grateful that we get to keep doing work that always feels essential to us, but now is especially essential to get people good food. Our employees all worked at restaurants also, and they all got laid off, so it also feels really great to be able to provide them with paychecks still.”
Ferrebouf's sentiment is echoed by urban farmers across Austin, including HausBar's Barger and Boggy Creek’s Carol Ann Sayle.
“We are going to make it,” says Barger. “Our neighbors have already shown us we can make it. We have the capacity to grow even further and make up all the revenue we lost from restaurant business.”
“We’re not about to quit,” vows Sayle. “We do not quit.”