In the early months of the pandemic, Josh Fabel toiled attempting to sell his five-year-old Winnsboro farm’s wares, like tomatoes and squash, to restaurants.
It was largely fruitless, aside from one instance near the end of the season.
Fabel wondered how he could make his farm work financially. He landed on agritourism — namely, using an in-construction barn for events on his farm — and other efforts, like selling at farmers’ markets and plans to produce goods like cotton decorations or sunflowers.
The hope is these can work together to help bolster his produce sales.
His reasoning was simple.
"I can’t make a living off of what I’m doing so far,” he said.
Fabel paired these efforts with a greater emphasis on building new relationships.
Connected now with various neighborhood associations, he said he's now helping spearhead a neighborhood farmers market for Columbia's Earlewood Park, which he hopes to start in the second week of April if he can recruit enough farmers to fill it out.
“I guess I didn’t believe that it would take a while to build a relationship," Fabel offered. "When I first started (I thought) you grow a bunch and people will buy everything."
His experience is telling. Throughout the Palmetto State, independent farmers that focus on immediately local food systems — farm-to-table restaurants, farmers markets and grocers — have been forced to pivot during the pandemic. Now, as the vaccination effort ramps up in the state and nation, many have renewed ambitions for their businesses.
But not everybody has the same approach for live after the pandemic. Some look to balance new revenue sources with ones that were reliable before COVID-19. Some feel it makes sense to eschew old plans entirely to focus new opportunities. Some are excited to build on business plans set in motion far before the pandemic.
“I feel like we’re turning a corner with this whole thing," said Gina Decker, co-owner of Sharon Hill Farms near the York County town of Sharon. "The goal is that these people that have discovered us, we want to keep them."
Decker’s farm focuses mostly on raising chickens and, with their proximity to the well-regarded food scene in Greenville, has found success selling to the city’s farm-to-table restaurants. Early in the pandemic, those sales dried up, and Decker’s farm started selling directly to consumers online, which worked particularly well as grocery stores experienced meat shortages early in the pandemic.
She said this tactic made up entirely for the roughly 30 to 40 percent sales dip the farm faced on its wholesale side, but that comes with some downsides. The farm is remote, so they spend time selling through meetups in parking lots or bulk order sales in neighborhoods.
Now, as the pandemic seems to wane, restaurants the farm had a strong relationship with are beginning to return. Decker said it’s somewhat sporadic and focused on specialty “chef-only” products — hearts or livers — but it's a welcome return. For example, a strong pre-existing relationship led Rock Hill brewery Legal Remedy to make them a go-to seller for the new farm-to-table restaurant it opened recently.
“It’s maintaining our relationships with our customers, whether wholesale or retail,” Decker explained. “Find a way it works for all of us. The relationship building is the most important thing.”
In the Lowcountry town of Pamplico, Rose Lewis runs Rebecca Farms, a mushroom growing operation that focuses on supplying wholesale produce operations like West Columbia’s Senn Brothers. That was intentional for the farm, which felt it could offer higher quality fungi at lower prices by going that route, rather than attempting to sell at markets or elsewhere.
Like Decker’s operation, Lewis’ output shifted amid the pandemic as demand dropped for the relatively niche food. It also stalled a potential deal with the Independent Grocers Alliance to distribute to that network of stores, and a Lowcountry market through which they sold large quantities has not purchased from them since.
“With COVID there were many months we didn’t have anything to send,” Lewis said.
However, that almost-deal with IGA led them to buy numerous clamshell plastic containers in preparation. That became a lifesaver as they began selling mushrooms in those containers through the local food hub GrowFood Carolina in Charleston, Senn Brothers and to some local markets. Lewis said these sales dramatically dampened the losses they incurred during 2020.
Now, wholesale is beginning to return, Lewis is looking to get back on track.
“We are strictly wholesale, and our business plan, our goal is to be the premiere retail … in the South,” she said. “We want to continue to grow our wholesale business and continue to get into more retail outlets.”
In Columbia, Jason Roland runs the farm Organically Roland. It’s become one of the more well known local providers of produce, yet amid the pandemic he dramatically shifted his focus away from restaurants to emphasize direct sales to customers through a customer-supported agriculture (CSA) program through which participants receive boxes of fresh produce.
“Restaurant relationships have faded off because they had to do what they had to do in that extreme time period of having to survive, of making it day to day,” Roland explained. “I had to do the same thing and I have developed these really strong relationships with all of the folks that are on my CSA.”
Roland anticipated that this shift for his business, which he estimated now sits at about 80 percent CSA and 20 percent restaurant sales, would be permanent. It has resulted in a roughly 5 to 10 percent increase in sales and has other benefits, he posited.
Even before the pandemic, restaurant demand could often be sporadic, with large orders one week and small ones the next. It made planning difficult and stressful. But CSA boxes are consistent, aside from the potential for customers to drop in and out.
Further, Roland said there is blossoming interest in the program, for which he has a wait list and receives new inquiries almost every day.
“If there is anything good that has come out of this pandemic, it's getting people back in touch with nature and their roots and it's just been beautiful,” Roland said.