Local farmers are banding together to create online service in light of coronavirus

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(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)

Many local farmers are finding themselves in a bind after the coronavirus has caused many Farmers Markets in the region to close.

KelRae Farms in James City County have developed a solution to help those in the agriculture industry continue to provide for their clients.

KelRae Farms recently launched their new Food Hub platform, which allows shoppers to order produce and products through featured vendors and pick them up at a convenient location.

Michelle Gulden, owner of KelRae, said the idea has been in the works since last year and the farm had planned to launch the food hub in the summer. But due to the issues surrounding the coronavirus, Gulden decided to push up the launch date and start providing the service.

“It inspired me because all of the sudden we couldn’t do our open markets,” she said. “With the pandemic, we realized it was a way to save some of us [farmers] because now it’s their only outlet to produce their product.”

Since launching in March, the Food Hub has collected 14 vendors who now offer and sell their products through the service.

Morgan Johnston, manager of Drumheller Orchard, said the service has helped them to push their products after the tremendous impact of the coronavirus. While she said the farmers market closures haven’t impacted their revenue significantly yet, she said she expects it to become an issue.

“During our season when we’re in full swing, we really depend on farmers markets for our business,” she said. “We think it will definitely make a big impact for us for sure profit wise, because we know we have the customers there and we have to make sure we can provide what they need.”

In the meantime, Drumheller and other farms are also taking precautions to adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Johnston said her staff are constantly wearing gloves and masks when working with the produce and that all of the farm’s surfaces are regularly sanitized.

She also said that she’s noticed people have started looking to local farms even more than before as some grocery stores have a limited supply of fresh produce. Before the food hub it was difficult to coordinate all the different times and orders with people while making sure customers and employees were safe.

The new food hub now allows customers to order Drumheller’s products and helps the farm prepare for the coming season.

Pam Dannon, food hub manager for KelRae, said food hubs have existed across the state and act almost as a virtual farmers market. In regards to the hub launched with KelRae, she said the process was seamless because it fit in with the farm’s already existing Community Supported Agriculture program.

The program is where people buy a farm share at the beginning of the season and receive produce from the farm over the course of a few months, Dannon said. When people come to pick up their products, they could also shop around the farm’s store room which featured products from other local vendors.

But social distancing has prevented that interactive aspect of the CSA so now people can come in their cars to receive their products from various vendors in the area.

The new online ordering platform allows farmers to track and receive orders, even when they’re out working in the field. Customers have until midnight each Monday to place their orders for that week and then they can come to KelRae on Thursdays to pick up their orders in a drive-thru line.

“That’s why the food hub has been a great tool for many,” Gulden said. “It’s a set time and a set day so we’re able to control it and prevent large crowds during this pandemic.”

Dannon said while the food hub has launched early to help farmers during the pandemic, KelRae plans to continue the service even after the coronavirus has passed.

“The model is very authentic,” Dannon said. “Families and members are coming out to the farm to pick up their order and seeing a real working farm in action.”

For more information on the KelRae Food Hub, visit the service online.

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