Prema Farm one example of how organic farm industry is tweaking business models due to COVID-19
RENO, Nev. — Every Thursday in the early morning — before the orange sun rises, when the sky is still starry-black — Zach Cannady and his colleagues rove across Northern Nevada in vehicles packed with a medley of fresh organic vegetables.
Bunches of carrots, boats of zucchinis, vines of slicer tomatoes — among many other greens, roots and herbs plucked from garden beds — fill boxes that are delivered to the doorsteps of roughly 150 residences dotting greater Reno-Sparks.
“We leave the farm at 2 a.m. to do hands-free deliveries between 2-5 a.m. before people have to leave for work,” said Cannady, lead farmer of Prema Farm, a 1.5-acre farm tucked in nearby Loyalton, Calif., 20 miles or so northwest of Reno.
Prema Farm’s contactless home delivery before dawn breaks is a microcosm of how the region’s organic and urban farmers are tweaking their business models in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the COVID crisis, Cannady said, Prema Farm did not do custom home deliveries outside of its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, who receive seasonal farm boxes weekly from mid-May to September.
When the state shut down, however, Prema Farm’s revenue stream from selling at the Riverside Farmers Market near downtown Reno — which Prema Farm started in fall 2018 — was cut off after the year-round market closed.
Moreover, the Reno-based farm could no longer rely on cash flow from sales at the Truckee Community Farmers Market, which has suspended the rest of its 2020 season.
“The only way that we’ve made that up was moving all of our sales to the home delivery,” Cannady said. “They pretty much picked up what those two markets lost.”
After the Riverside market closed in mid-March, Prema Farm adapted by launching an online store for home deliveries and emailing customers who’ve provided email addresses in the past. Instantly, the online store, which accepts orders from 5 p.m. Saturdays to 9 p.m. Mondays, saw a surge in orders.
“People are signing on the minute the store opened and we see a huge rush of a hundred orders within the first hour that we’re open,” Cannady said. “In March and April, that was huge for us, because that meant that 100% of the produce that we had listed is pretty much selling out in that first hour that we opened.”
What’s more, the farm expanded its 80-person CSA membership 25 additional spots, which didn’t stay empty for long.
“Because we’re small, we can change our business in a night or in a week,” Cannady said. “And the community has really stood behind us in a great way.”
This strong support was especially beneficial for Prema Farm early in the pandemic not only because of the closed farmers markets.
All told, the farm’s wholesale revenue — which accounted for 30% of its sales, pre-COVID, Cannady said — wilted after area restaurants had to downsize their operations to curbside and delivery only. Since the state has gradually reopened, leading to more restaurants needing more produce, Cannady said the farm has seen in its wholesale market grow significantly.
“It’s been really cool because now when we list our wholesale stuff (online), which we just started doing, the restaurants are buying up everything that we list almost immediately,” he said.
With a rising demand from its direct-to-consumer and wholesale markets, Prema Farm has seen about a 20% increase in sales over the last three months compared to last year, Cannady said. To meet the growing demand, however, the farm’s increased its labor by roughly 20%, he noted.
“It’s not an increase to our bottom line,” Cannady explained. “But, for us, it makes it so we haven’t suffered much of a loss. It just equates to more labor hours, more long nights, and more work trying to keep the local food system pumping in a time where social distancing and mask requirements stopped farmers markets, essentially.”
All the while, Cannady said Perma Farm is focusing on growing more “storage crops” — carrots, potatoes, beets, to name a few — the second half of the year and beyond. He pointed to the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic as the primary reason.
“Those tend to be a little less expensive and less perishable,” he said. “If the economy really took a hit, we figured the best thing we could do is provide storage food.”
Construction could begin next year and require about 500 to 600 workers, with a permanent workforce starting at 150 to 200 people with potential to expand.