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Farmers Plant A New Business Model During Coronavirus Pandemic

April 7, 2020

Farmer Lee Jones only wears one thing: denim overalls, a pressed white shirt, and a red bowtie. Inspired by a farming family in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, it’s meant to serve as a symbol of resilience and determination among small family farms. Photo by: Michelle Demuth-Bibb/The Chef’s Garden

“Farms don’t go on furlough” — Amid restaurant closures, small-scale farmers must pivot to stay afloat

By Katy Severson

As COVID-19 shuttered bars and restaurants across the country last month, there were compounding effects on all who exist within the supply chain. Among the most affected? Small-scale farmers, many of whom rely on restaurant business to stay afloat. For farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio—who grows exclusively for chefs—it felt like he’d “fallen off a cliff.”

“Overnight our entire customer base was gone,” Jones said. “For 37 years we’ve worked directly with chefs,” many of them fine dining chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud whose restaurants are closed for the foreseeable future. Disney, whose parks are closed indefinitely for now, is a customer too.
For decades, his 350-acre family farm has grown exclusively for chefs. In order to maintain the farm’s livelihood—and the livelihood of the 150 employees with families who help tend his fields—Lee knew he needed to adapt.

Within twenty-four hours, he switched his business from chefs to home cooks: offering produce boxes on his website that ship directly from the farm to private homes. “We thought it would be a natural way to keep our team going, to have a place for the product to go, and to provide for families out there that are looking for something healthy and fresh,” Jones said. Offerings include a number of curated boxes, including the “Immunity Booster” — a variety of immune-boosting vegetables whose nutrition content is measured in their on-farm laboratory. Shipping, offered nationwide, is included in the price. “We’re not necessarily making the money on the box, but we felt some obligation to do it.”

Plus, they simply had product to sell. “Farms don’t go on furlough. You can’t flip the switch and say we’ll come back in 2 months when things are better. Every single day it needs to be nurtured and loved and cared for and coddled and as a farmer you have a very intimate relationship with your farm. It makes a farmer sick to see products coming up ready and have no place to go with them.”

The Chef’s Garden isn’t the only one. While supermarkets struggle to keep up with demand, farmers have plenty of food in their fields—and many are anxious to sell it. But with market closures and delays in many places, their farms are increasingly difficult to access.

“There are a lot of small farms suffering right now,” says Jones. “I feel a bit selfish saying that because I know that the entire world is suffering. But many of these farmers don’t have a mechanism to get the word out. We’re all trying to use our Instagrams [to connect to customers] but there’s just not much of a voice for us.”

If anything, he feels lucky. A network of big-name chefs gives him even a little bit of leverage. Most family farms across America have very little voice, he says. Often little capital. And little time to invest in changing their model. Boxing, shipping, and online ordering is an undertaking for those who spend their days in the fields. Nonetheless, these farmers are being forced pivot. On top of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, where customers pay up front and receive weekly or monthly “shares” throughout the season, many farms are offering contactless pickup and home delivery as best they can during the pandemic.

Other farmers are partnering with restaurants to sell their goods—in a symbiotic relationship that helps to keep the restaurant’s doors open and supports suppliers in the process.

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo—the restaurateurs behind Jon & Vinny’s, Kismet, and animal in Los Angeles—have started selling “Farm to You” boxes featuring fresh meat and produce from a slew of local farms on top of takeout and delivery. Other spots, like Lady & Larder in LA, have become pickup hubs for farms: a place where customers can safely pick up orders directly through the farms themselves.

Michelle Demuth-Bibb/The Chef’s Garden

The pivot has been challenging for many, but ultimately worthwhile. Customer interest in these models show promise. Jon & Vinny’s has consistently sold out their boxes— and some farmers are even seeing increases in business.

Farmer Lee Jones says he hopes the enthusiasm could be a silver lining in it all. Will there be a resurgence of localized food and farming economies? A renewed appreciation for quality? More trusting relationships with those that grow our food? We can only hope.

The Chef’s Garden doesn’t pick produce until an order is placed. It’s impeccably fresh. And it’s touched by few hands before it reaches the consumer; far fewer than say, the grocery store, where produce sits in trucks and shelves and warehouses for weeks before we buy it.

The pandemic, says Jones, has changed his business for good. “This has forever created a fork in the road and we will have two lanes: one for people at home direct from the farm and one for chefs. This has always been about producing something that people appreciate and people need. I couldn’t dream of walking away.”

For an open-source database of small-scale farms and producers offering pickup, delivery, and/or nationwide shipment during COVID-19, click here.



Photo by Katy Severson


A Motown Hive Mind: Detroit beekeepers work to save the bees, the beers, and the city

December 6, 2019

By Zoe Zorka

In recent years, there’s been a lot of buzz around Detroit- both figurative and literal. For one,
the city is in the midst of a major renaissance- showing the strongest economy in decades and
experiencing unprecedented residential and commercial growth. Then there’s actual buzz as Detroit unexpectedly leads the charge in…beekeeping and bee preservation. And just like the bees’ pollination efforts are crucial to the ecosystem, they’re proving equally valuable to Detroit’s food and beverage scene.

Detroit Is The Place To Bee
The greenery appears in the afternoon sun as a sort of oasis in one of the nation’s most
notorious concrete jungles. The late afternoon low winter sun casts a hazy golden glow that just
slightly dulls the colors of the otherwise vibrant urban garden. Timothy Paule and Nicole
Lindsey, decked out in full beekeeper suits, check their professional-grade bee hives. As they
pull out a colony, the bees buzz around at a dizzying speed. It’s hard to tell whether or not the
bees are angry, happy, or just annoyed that they have to work on the weekend.

Behind them, a colorful mural on the fence mirrors the reality of the garden- busy bees, thriving
flowers, and an overall sense of blossoming prosperity. This is the home of Detroit Hives, a
nonprofit beekeeping organization with the motto of “Detroit is the Place to Bee.”

While Paule and Lindsey do their best to remain humble (or bumble), their accomplishment has
become somewhat symbolic or Detroit’s larger renaissance. Just over a year ago, this lush
garden, now buzzing with life, was a gray, abandoned, trash-filled lot with tires and other debris
strewn haphazardly around it.

Where Grass Grows Today, Only Weeds Grew A Year Ago
The transformation from decrepit eyesore to flourishing urban oasis began in 2017 when the
duo, certified beekeepers, purchased the parcel through the Detroit Land Bank Authority, an
organization whose purpose is to sell once-blighted plots to nonprofits, with the intention of
creating a sustainable urban garden with a focus in beekeeping.

While some might see Detroit (a city more renowned for its dilapidated infrastructure and
creeping blight) as yet another sign of the strange, pseudo pre-apocalyptic times that we are
living in, Paule and Lindsey are just two of the Detroit beekeepers that have taken advantage of
the blight and turned it into a bright future- for bees, beer, and neighborhoods.

In the past few years, beekeeping has become somewhat of a crucial endeavor as due to the
declining population of bee hives throughout the nation. According to a recent study conducted
by the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture
(USDA), beekeepers in the United States lost 44 percent of their colonies between April 2015
and April 2016. While the causes are still largely unknown and subject to criticism and
controversy from subject matter experts, researchers, scientists, and special interest groups,
the fact remains the same: bees need places to live and thrive.

Vacant Land and Venture Capital
Detroit Hives are not alone in their endeavors. Many other organizations and individuals have
begun to capitalize on the opportunities presented by cheap land and an abundance of social
grants designed to revitalize both the city and the environment.

In 2009, professors John Mogk and Mary Weindorf of Wayne State University in Detroit
published one of the first academic papers about what many at the time may have considered a
ridiculous endeavor- beekeeping in a decaying urban jungle. At the time, Mogk and Weindorf
made the argument that “tens of thousands of lots are not maintained and blight their
neighborhoods, lowering adjacent property values and contributing to further abandonment. In
addition to vacant land, there are more than 75,000 abandoned residential structures. Some
neighborhoods are more than fifty percent vacant. Citywide, thirty percent of residential
parcels no longer have homes on them.”

Green Garage, a Detroit-based green incubator focusing on assisting startups focusing on social, environmental (or ecological) and financial growth, asserts that there are somewhere between 500 and 600 honeybee hives within the Detroit city limits. With approximately 30,000 bees dwelling in each hive, that’s a lot of buzz.

Detroit Hives has been an industry leader in the expansion of urban beekeeping efforts and in just a few short years, has expanded to approximately 35 hives in nine locations (five lots, two schools, and two community gardens).

The importance of urban beekeeping cannot be understated as providing a sustainable model
for colony growth and development is tantamount to replenishing the dwindling bee
population. Experts believe that urban areas provide an ideal environment for this dynamic due
to the lack of natural predators in the area. Urban beehives have also been shown to produces
healthier bees with greater biodiversity and stronger immune systems than those in rural
environments. This is largely due to the fact that urban bees are exposed to more diverse plant
life than those on farms and in other rural areas. Additionally, hives in Detroit and other urban
areas are less likely to be exposed to pesticides than their rural counterparts.

Bees In The Food And Beverage Business
As bees start to outnumber Detroit residents, their impact is felt far beyond that of environmental sustainability. Not only does Detroit Hives sell their own brand of honey, but their honey can be found in several local brands of food and beverage.

For Paule, this focus on local ingredients is important for local communities. “People are realizing the importance of using local organic ingredients in the food we eat. Almost seventy five percent of honey that you buy in stores isn’t real honey. Detroit has been one of the most food insecure cities and we’re hoping to help change that.”
For customers who are “busy as a bee,” Detroit Hives also delivers honey via a partnership with DoorDash. They are currently the only farm product on DoorDash in the Detroit area.

The bees’ honey currently supplies a major ingredient for Black Bottom Brewing’s distinctive Detroit style craft beers as well as Slows BBQ sauce. (Slows BBQ is a Detroit success story in of its own, transforming an abandoned block into a prosperous restaurant.) Detroit Hives honey is also used in the pizza crust at Grandma Bob’s (a Detroit staple) and in their mixed cocktails as well as in the mixed drinks at Detroit’s iconic Imperial bar.

B. Nektar brewing company located just outside of Detroit, which is currently the largest meadery in the U.S., uses local honey is currently in numerous seasonal beers, including their well-known Zombie Killer, a cherry and honey-based hard cider as well as their recently released Cherry Pie mead, a brew based on a cherry pie recipe and incorporating tart cherries, honey, and actual pie crusts.

The honey is also found in many of their regular recipes. The Rhube Strawberg, a 6.0 ABV mead, combines honey, strawberry juice, and pressed rhubarb juice, noting that “the Rhubarb’s tart flavor goes perfectly with the sweetness of strawberries.” Their Episode 13 3 Year Reserve
features honey wine aged in bourbon barrels for 36 months. The deep fermented honey, combined with notes of earthy buckwheat and light caramel, give this brilliantly golden brew a serious punch with a sweet, caramel aftertaste.

In addition to creating award-winning brews, B. Nektar brewery regularly hosts local food trucks- all of which are local to Detroit and feature some element of authentic Detroit cuisine including TruckShuka (specializing in Israeli cuisine), Senors and Simply Spanish food trucks, and Michigan legend, the Detroit Panzerotti Company

Meanwhile Black Bottom Brewery is also Detroit’s first worker-owned brewery with majority black woman ownership in the city of Detroit. They pride themselves on emphasizing sustainability and local sourcing by using from hops and grains grown as close to Detroit as possible. A portion of their annual profits are reinvested back into the Detroit community through their support of community arts and renewal. Detroit’s first, worker-owned brewery with majority black woman ownership in the city of Detroit.

You might say that the bees are taking “catching a buzz” to a whole new level.