Kathleen Coullard, left, of Kennebunk places produce on the counter while Frinklepod Farm store employees Kristin Burgess and Molly Hetzel bag and ring up the items. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The gravel lot outside Frinklepod Farm in Arundel was full before the store even opened on a recent Saturday morning. Customers pulled on masks before heading inside to choose from the selection of organic produce, locally baked treats, specialty vegan foods and several intricately arranged bouquets of flowers.

The small wooden store tucked neatly between two fields of crops is a welcome change from the barren supermarket aisles consumers experienced for much of the spring early in the pandemic. After closing for about a month in March to prepare safety measures as a result of COVID-19, the store is open again.

“The store is the only way we make our income. We had to put a lot of energy into our online store, and we sold out super quickly,” said co-farmer and retail manager of Frinklepod Farm Flora Brown. “We have a lot more business in our farm store than last year.”

Although the pandemic has meant economic turmoil for many industries, business at many local farm stores has increased. Some farmers have refocused on selling directly to customers rather than wholesale to restaurants and schools. Many have increased their online presence through virtual stores and websites while at the same time giving up once prime spots at farmers markets. Many farms have said it’s too early to know how much difference the uptick in business will make, and they’ve been too busy with sales to take time to crunch the numbers anyway, but the increased interest in shopping at their stores is certain.

“If you can be outside on a farm with fewer people picking up food, that might feel safer than a grocery store,” said Sarah Alexander, executive director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “When people saw bare shelves back in March, maybe (they thought) they should see where the food is coming from and have more safety and security in the supply chain.”

Donna and Sam Johnson of Wells shop at Frinklepod Farm. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Donna and Sam Johnson of Wells began shopping at Frinklepod Farm about a month ago. “We’ve always liked to buy these type of products,” Donna Johnson said. “They’re just advertised more now.”

“The thoughtfulness and understanding makes them special. Where else do you get this?” Sam Johnson said, gesturing to a white board explaining which produce is available and where it comes from.

At the start of the pandemic, Allison Lakin of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese started a spreadsheet for other farmers and local food producers to share information. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension soon transformed it into a farm product and pick-up directory.

“I realized this was going to be a long-term change in the way things were operating, so I had to shift from being mostly a wholesale business to try and turn to more retail,” Lakin said. “My income is down 85 percent, so smaller things have picked up, like The Lost Kitchen’s online farmer’s market.”

Some 2,000 people signed up for the Green Spark Farm newsletter in March alone, compared to 600 total over the last eight or nine years, said Austin Chadd, co-owner and operator of the Cape Elizabeth farm. “We had a flash sale (one) Thursday, and we sold 300 cucumbers in 10 minutes. It’s so much our website can’t handle (the traffic),” Chadd said.

Rachel Harris, co-owner of Harris Farm in Dayton, which sells its own milk, beef and seasonal vegetables in its farm store, said the increase in business has “been really nice but overwhelming at the same time.”

“We normally shorten hours in the spring, but we couldn’t do that. We kept extended hours because there was too much traffic coming through,” she said.

Seedling sales have also grown. Frinklepod Farm typically has seedling sales in May and June. This year, they started the sale with pre-orders online and sold out fast. “The first day it opened, it was snowing, and there were (still) two dozen people waiting to get in,” customer Nat Saywell said.

“Especially compared to last year, (the amount of) people here this year was insane,” Frinklepod employee Molly Hetzel added.

But as the pandemic continues, local farmers wonder if the trend of buying directly from farms will continue.

Alexander is pushing for that: “There’s a lot of uncertainty for the summer and the spring season,” she said. “We need Mainers to buy from our local farms so they can continue to exist.”

Harris, meanwhile, is hopeful these new consumer habits are here to stay. “This whole pandemic proves the whole food system is broken, and food is the most basic need. I think people finally realize the importance of local,” Harris said. “Everybody kind of appreciates a farmer again.”


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