With restaurants shuttered, more Oregonians bring farm to their table

Special Reports

Restaurant supplier turns to subscription model while existing CSAs see increased interest

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When restaurants started to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it could have dealt a huge blow to Your Kitchen Garden. The small farm sells the bulk of its produce to about 20 eateries in the Portland area.

Instead of throwing in the towel, husband-wife team Sheldon Marcuvitz and Carole Laity and their dedicated delivery driver hatched a plan to adopt a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model and sell a selection of their crop to individual customers each week. Within 24 hours of announcing the plan, they had sold out and were establishing a wait list.

“It’s really, I think, a pretty incredible story and certainly a silver lining in these dark times,” delivery driver Cary Ransome said. “I think they’re almost doing the same business they would have done as a bottom line to the restaurants.”

Cary Ransome (left) helps customers pick up their produce boxes in Southeast Portland on March 27, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Ransome would normally spend his workdays driving a van full of leafy greens, leeks, sunchokes, or whatever else is growing that week from restaurant to restaurant. Now each Friday he takes the van to Oui Presse in Southeast Portland. The coffee shop had to close after the COVID outbreak, but is lending its space to the pop-up CSA.

Cathy Whims has been buying Your Kitchen Garden’s produce for her restaurants for about 20 years. Now Nostrana and Enoteca Nostrana are closed indefinitely, and Oven & Shaker is only doing pizzas and salads to go.

“It’s a really scary time to be a restaurant owner or to be a restaurant employee,” Whims said. “There’s a lot of restaurants that might not reopen their doors.”

She said she was “really impressed” at how quickly her farm of choice was able to come up with a new sales model, and said it’s a great opportunity for home cooks to buy fresh, local produce.

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

Other farms operate as a CSA all year long, and have been adapting to the coronavirus situation as well.

Lyn Jacobs and her husband Juvencio Argueta have been running La Finquita Del Buho (“the little farm of the owl”) in Helvetia for about 20 years. It started as basically a “large family garden,” Jacobs said. Now they sell to more than 100 families. Part of the charm of their CSA is when customers get to visit the farm, roam the fields and pet the dogs. Now all of that has changed.

“We’re asking them to wash their hands, touch only their own vegetables, not bring their bags. Basically, our entire farm has turned on its head,” Jacobs said.

The farming practices have changed too. Jacobs and Argueta wear gloves when they harvest vegetables, and Jacobs wears a mask because she also works as a doctor at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Cornelius.

“There’s not been a moment of rest,” she said.

Produce ready for pickup at La Finquita Del Buho (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area CSA Coalition, said farmers are working hard to adjust to COVID-19.

“A lot of CSA farmers are experimenting with different online sales platforms,” Hutchason said. “The farmers are in this huge learning curve right now of how to cope with this, but they are all on it.”

The coalition promotes more than 60 farms all over Oregon and Southwest Washington. Generally, CSA customers pay upfront at the start of the growing season. This benefits farmers because “they get the capital at the beginning of the season and that’s when they have to invest in their farm,” Hutchason said. “The capital at the beginning of the season is critical to help farmers not go into debt.”

Argueta said he thinks now, more than ever, people are turning to CSAs.

“I think people might feel safer to buy from the farm instead of going to the grocery store,” he said, because that way fewer people have touched their food.

Jacobs said this has been their busiest year so far for vegetable subscriptions. “People are interested in buying things locally,” she said. “I hope that continues after this.”

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