Without restaurant sales, local farms face tough decisions

When the statewide shelter-in-place order closed many restaurants in the Bay Area, Annabelle Lenderink panicked. She runs Star Route Farms, which grows a variety of vegetables in West Marin and the Coachella Valley. Almost all of the restaurant sales that the 40-acre farm depends on evaporated overnight.

“It was really gone, you know, nothing,” Lenderink said.

Normally, local restaurants buy 80% of the lettuce, vegetables and herbs grown by Star Route. The rest goes to farmers’ markets.

Farms like Star Route, which rely heavily on restaurant sales, were forced to find new outlets overnight. Some let crops rot on the vines rather than spending time and money harvesting.

“Many of them have lost up to 100% of their outlets almost overnight,” said Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the expected sales of farmers in up-and-down outlets across the state. The fact that farmers are dealing with perishable products makes the problem worse, Wiig said.

Star Route Farms employees pack produce in boxes. (Courtesy of Annabelle Lenderink / Star Route Farms)

“You can’t just put a cap on it and hope for a better time,” Wiig said.

Mike Iacopi, owner of Iacopi Farms outside of Pescadero, grew up farming and has never looked back. He grows peas and beans, both dry and fresh, on 200 acres. He cultivates half of that dry, which means there is no irrigation. Sales to San Francisco restaurants like Delfina and Lazy Bear made up about 50% of its business before the COVID-19 crisis forced those companies to drastically downsize their operations.

At this time of year, Iacopi expects to sell 300 cans of English peas, favas, and sugar snaps to restaurants each week. This year, he sells around 40 boxes a week. Farmers’ markets have remained stable, but he depends on restaurants to move his produce in large volumes. “When you have a bumper crop and nowhere to distribute it, it’s kind of a slap in the face,” Iacopi said. For now, he’s only harvesting what he thinks he can sell.

“The rest just rot on the plants,” Iacopi said.

Further south, Will Brokaw grows avocados, kiwis, guavas and a variety of citrus fruits on two ranches, one in Santa Paula and the other in Soledad. His restaurant business has slumped 90%, and as sales at farmers’ markets have picked up, he estimates the farm has lost around 50% of its revenue since mid-March. Now he decides to harvest the lemons and tangerines or leave them to rot on the tree.

To deal with reduced restaurant sales, Star Route Farms made a rapid transition to assembling boxes of produce and distributing them to 16-18 sites per week. A16, a restaurant in San Francisco and Oakland, is among the regular patrons of restaurants that now sell boxes of Star Route Farms products to customers.

Support from the University of San Francisco, which owns the farm, facilitated the transition. The university distributes boxes of products on its campus and has set up a website so that Star Route can process orders online.

Some of the restaurants that normally buy produce for their kitchens have also started selling the boxes, and Lenderink has told customers about this at farmers’ markets.

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