What You Need To Know: 'Paying It Forward' In A Virtual Farmers Market
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The pandemic is hurting the nation's food supply in big ways with the closure of schools, hotels, and restaurants. On the farm, the situation is dire, but one Georgia farmer sees the pandemic as an opportunity. Jon Jackson is the executive director of StagVets and the founder of Comfort Farms. He tells GPB's Virginia Prescott how he's shifted his business to a virtual farmers market.
So what do you raise and grow at Comfort Farms?
I got some okra from Liberia and I used to serve with a veteran from the Liberian army. We became friends and my mom's from Liberia. And I asked him to send me some seeds from some farmers up there. So these are all heirloom seeds from Africa. Okra is indigenous to Africa. And so it's really important for me to bring over food that many of the slaves brought over with them. And it's so ironic that we kind of grow comfort food on Comfort Farms. So do you want to go see some animals?
All right. We'll do that. Soo-wee! So how's it going guys? Say hello to the world. And they're coming off from back in the mountains. So what we're doing is we got this pen that had a lot of pine beetle damage to the ponds. So these guys are clearing that out and we're moving them over to another pen— three to four, five-acre pen— and we'll have two or three of those on the property. We're going to come back in here, clear all this debris out, clear the canopy out, open it up. And then we'll go in and plant a lot of different legumes and things like that that will kind of revitalize and nourish the land.
But these are breeds of hogs that we actually raise. I have what they call the Kayoko [?] And also the Royal Ubali[?]. We're saving the mule foot genetics, which is a rare ancient breed that came over with the Spaniards from Rome.
So that's one of the breeding moms right there. She'll go ahead and get bred pretty soon and then with the chaos, they will as well. But really good docile animals. And we're raising them on the land like we need to. And with the co-op of other farmers, we're able to support our market. We probably have about a thousand hogs in our program all at once.
So that's one of the things that the demand has cut down for, right? I mean, you're raising these hogs for individual restaurants for the most part. It's not like they're going to Smithfield meat processing plants.
Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. These are not commodity hogs. These are going to our restaurants and to families.
Many of your customers are restaurants. Who do you serve? How many?
We serve over 50 restaurants in a state from Savannah to Athens to Atlanta. From The Wild to The Grey, Savannah to Heirloom Cafe to Deer and a Dove, to the Wrecking Bar and also to Cobb Galleria, which is a wide range of different types of businesses that we actually work with.
So what did you think when you learned that so many of the restaurants that you serve as customers were gonna be closed?
Oh, wow. Yeah. So, I mean, every farm, you know, it's easy to go into anxiety mode when you realize that your income for the farm to sustain is gone. But, like I said before, I'm a ranger, I'm a vet and I believe that the number one reason why as humans here on the earth is to problem solve. And that's what we do. And that's what I did.
And so I was given the situation and I had 16 seconds to figure out what my next move was going to be. And in less than 24 hours, I turned our farm into a virtual farmer's market for addressing the needs of our community that wanted to kind of maintain social distancing and still have a way to get really good, nutritionally dense food to their families. And so we did that in less than 24 hours. And we have since, I think three and a half weeks ago, we fed over 400 families.
And how about the restaurant? Any demand at all? I know some of them are doing to-go orders.
Yes. So some of our restaurants— we have two things, two different restaurant clientele. Some restaurants are buying from us because they need to feed their employees. They have a lot of employees that don't have access to... they're unemployed. They don't have any way of having any money. So we work with them through the sales of our community. We're able to kind of subsidize some of the bulk items that they need to feed over 100 people. So we work on different things to give to them.
But then we have other restaurants who are built and we have some built-in resiliency towards this, like restaurants. You have butcher shops. They're actually buying whole animals from us, more animals than before Corona. I mean, before the COVID virus came in, you know, Evergreen Butcher and Baker, they're buying two hogs from us every two weeks. They're breaking those hogs down. They're selling to the community and they're getting farm-fresh products straight locally from Georgia, from us. And they're doing really well.
So how does that work? Are you actually able to recoup the revenue that you would have gotten from restaurants had they not been closed?
Oh, yes, we have recouped all of our losses within two weeks from the restaurants because of the influx of new people that have come in. When we set up our virtual farmers market, we had about, I would say 100, about 80 to 100 people that instantly went in while those 80 to 100 people told all their friends about it. And now they're coming in. And we just continuously see this huge rise of folks who are actually going through [the] virtual farmers' market. And we're filling their orders and we're just making it happen.
So although I'm not asking my restaurants for payment right now because I understand they're going through such a hard time just trying to make ends meet— they don't know there's the uncertainty of whether they're even going to be around after this is all over with. It's still up in the air in many of them won't make it back. So I can't rely on that.
My whole thing is, is to have us be sustainable because our mission cannot fail us. Helping veterans can not fail. And so by us turning and pivoting towards the community and filling in the niche where the big major chains can't, our community has blessed us with that. And by doing so, I'm able to have peace of mind and some things I'm never going to get back from our restaurants and that's okay. You know, it's going to be forgiveness on our part to allow them to go. We'll do good. You know, God's been good to us. So we're going to just pay it forward.