Masked customers shop at stands at the Athens Farmers Market at Bishop Park in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. The market enforces social distancing and mask guidelines for COVID-19. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

The agriculture sector has had to get creative to sustain business during the pandemic, and many local farmers have seen growth as a result. Here’s an update on farmers and community agriculture organizers here in town.

Athens Locally Grown

While other farmers markets took longer to adapt to COVID-19, Athens Locally Grown remained open and saw increased sales, said manager Eric Wagoner. Athens Locally Grown managed to transition to an outdoor pick-up system early on and has continued implementing safety guidelines in the ordering, payment and pick-up process.

When COVID-19 hit, customers feared going to the grocery store, and the disruption of the supply chain caused product shortages, Wagoner said. Because of the online ordering system used by ALG, “it was easier for us to adapt than for more traditional markets,” he said.

The first priority was changing order pick-up to be safe, with social distancing, protective gear and the ability to wash hands, Wagoner said.

“I have been championing the benefits of an online market for a long time,” Wagoner said. “The nature of online ordering gives growers the ability to harvest only the amount of produce that has been pre-sold, he said.

In addition to managing Athens Locally Grown operations, Wagoner wrote the software that enables it to run as an online-only market, and he licenses the online ordering software to hundreds of farmers markets across the country.

In November 2020, Wagoner said the market’s sales continue to be about five times the level they were before the pandemic.

“We were blessed to be in a good place with the appropriate tools to handle the sudden surge in demand for locally grown, healthy foods,” Wagoner said.

The pandemic forced the market to relocate. The new space on Tallassee Road has no overhead lighting, Wagoner said, so the market brought in portable lights.

“We feel confident about being able to go on throughout the winter,” he said.

Because Athens Locally Grown is a Thursday market, it always closes the week of Thanksgiving, Wagoner said.

West Broad Farmers Market

The West Broad Farmers Market postponed the opening of its in-person market in 2020 because of the pandemic, said market manager Ellie Adams.

The market began using the software that Wagoner developed for Athens Locally Grown, Adams said. The second weekend in May, West Broad opened as an online market with curbside pick-up.

With the help of the market’s parent organization, the Athens Land Trust, Adams guided the market through the early months of the pandemic. Migrating to an online-only business with drive-thru pick-up has provided an extra benefit.

“It has grown our customer reach, which has been wonderful for our vendors,” Adams said.

With the exception of the weekend after Thanksgiving, the online market will stay open through Dec. 12, Adams said. In addition, on Dec. 5 and 12, the market will host an in-person holiday market.

Safety protocols including social distancing will be followed, Adams said, and the vendors will be predominantly selling arts and crafts. The in-person market will be held in the Athens Housing Authority parking lot, located beside the West Broad community garden.

After the holidays, the online market will reopen Jan. 10, 2021, rather than waiting until May, Adams said.

Athens Farmers Market

The Athens Farmers Market had planned to open its in-person market at Bishop Park on March 21. Because of COVID-19, it instead opened that day as an online-only market in partnership with Collective Harvest, Market Manager Sarah Thurman said.

On May 9, the market reopened its Bishop Park location, Thurman said. The market will remain open on Saturdays through Dec. 19, she said.

“At-market sales for the farmers remains slightly lower than it was last year,” Thurman said. “However, sales channels have broadened for them this year, and many of them are having the best season of their careers.”

Farmers expanded distribution by creating their own community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, selling goods through Collective Harvest and attending farmers markets in Atlanta, Thurman said.

“Instead of slowing down, we were able to pivot and accelerate substantially both the quantity of food available to the public and the means in which it was distributed,” Thurman said.

The market will stage its annual Holiday Market at Heirloom Café and Fresh Market on Nov. 25. People can get ingredients just in time to make an amazing Thanksgiving meal, she said. The market will also host its first Holiday Artist Market on Saturday, Nov. 28, from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. at Bishop Park. In addition to local artisans, there will be fresh produce, meat and prepared foods.

The Athens Farmers Market has entered into a partnership with the Athens Community Council on Aging in an initiative called “Athens Eats Together.” They are “providing free food to anyone in our community who is experiencing food insecurity because of the pandemic,” Thurman said.

From Collective Harvest, the online market is still available through the Farm Stand portal on the Collective Harvest website. Customers pick up their online orders at the new Collective Harvest office at 1084 Baxter St., Thurman said. Customers can also order items from vendors directly for pick-up, available on the Athens Farmers Market website.

3 Porch Farm

Almost 10 years ago, spouses Mandy and Steve O’Shea bought the nine-acre 3 Porch Farm, located a few miles away from Athens.

In the early years of the farm, the couple produced vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, honey and flowers, Steve O’Shea said. Then in 2014, the couple shifted their farm’s production almost exclusively to flowers, he said.

“Instead of presenting flowers as an afterthought, like every other booth at the market, we decided to make flowers the focal point,” Steve O’Shea said.

Because of the pandemic, the couple has reduced flower production from approximately 95% to 70% and shifted to more vegetables to aid in food security for the community, Mandy O’Shea said. In addition, they now raise medicinal crops like turmeric and ginger.

“COVID-19 completely flipped our business on its head, with a strong period of panic,” Steve O’Shea said. “We stopped doing markets altogether and transitioned very quickly to a shipping model.”

In a recent update, Steve O’Shea said the farm is focusing on its farm store to serve local customers.

“We are about to film a wreath-making tutorial, which we’ll be selling along with farm-harvested materials and a grapevine base, so families can make their own wreaths as a fun, seasonal art project,” Steve O’Shea said.

The couple is already gearing up for Valentine’s Day, Steve O’Shea said. It is expanding shipping options, so customers can send bouquets that are grown organically in Georgia.

“We want to give customers a much more sustainable option,” he said.