By Becky Nelson
Warning. Your sweet corn, cucumbers, squash and most other summer staple vegetables that you love to buy at local farm stands, ours in particular, may be later than you hope. Some crops most certainly will be late on our farm. We just barely got our first crop of sweet corn planted. It hasn’t even had time to germinate.
A recent report by Cooperative Extension estimates that the farming community is about three weeks later than average in planting and berry crops are later to ripen than average. I think that’s just about right. Seeds that we hope to have in the ground and growing in May, sometimes in late April, have not even left the packet. This is hard news for us farmers. The growing season here in the northeastern corner of the U.S. is very short to begin with, and to have a setback of three weeks or a month makes it a difficult choice of whether or not to even plant the seed. What we may do is plant our first and second blocks of produce and not set seed to ground for the traditional third or fourth, as there is little demand for the fresh stuff after Labor Day and it is silly to have product that we can’t sell later than the traditional demand for fresh produce in the area.
We are very thankful that we live where we do and that we have a glimmer of hope for a growing season at all, however. Folks in the Midwest who are still under water and have lost cattle, lost tillable land to flooding and see weather forecasts of even more rain coming have no such glimmer. The loss of feed corn production, corn production for ethanol, corn production for consumer goods, soybeans for animal feed and human food and supplies. It will hit the farmers even harder. Even if some of the affected farms are able to plant, their crops will be delayed and diminished.
Here in our little corner, we don’t have to worry about bulk production as we rely almost exclusively on retail sales at our store. This brings to the forefront another problem that wind and rain and hail and storms don’t much affect and it is the local consumer. I recently read a plea from a local Claremont businessman on a social media group site asking solicitors for donations to either stop coming and asking for money for myriad fundraisers or to patronize his place of business. We, too, get a lot of folks stopping in looking for donations. We are struggling to keep the doors of our business open and have been for several years with flagging community support. Folks get busy and don’t make the added stop for a carton of eggs or a bagful of spinach. At our store a sandwich or some other item is at a price that can’t compete with a box store. That the extra stop is an inconvenience is a sign of changed shopping habits, it is a struggle for all small businesses to survive.
Like ours, this particular business probably has a very devoted, yet very small reliable and committed base of customers. To have folks who rarely, if ever, come to your store or outlet to shop and then come asking for money and support is almost insulting, and I understand his angst about the situation. Yes, it is good to give to the community both for philanthropic and advertising reasons. But without community support, and lots of it, little shops are going to continue to pop up and then disappear and even some longtime pillars of the small town community are going to disappear. As folks turn to the immediate gratification of hopping online and ordering whatever they want whenever they want and have it shipped directly to their door to save the hassle of driving, physically shopping and standing in line at a checkout counter, we small businesses lose. We cannot compete.
We cannot just spring into action, hire a lot of help and start a delivery service. We cannot bear the rising costs of doing business with a shrinking customer base. We cannot pay more for our products than the big box or monster warehouse competition and match prices for the same or similar products. It just doesn’t work. So, all of us small business owners are now forced to find a unique little niche, turn to online sales or online ordering, if at all possible, hope to attract just enough customers to keep our store doors open and pray for the best. Don’t be surprised to see more small shops leave the stage. Without regular customer support we just can’t make it.
We plan to be open at the farm for a long time to come. We try to adjust and adapt to consumer needs and wants, and hope to continue serving our customer base and attracting even more to help us survive. Without adaptation and constant reaction to consumer habits and desires, we don’t have a chance. Especially in our agricultural endeavors, this is extremely difficult when Mother Nature gives us a slap like she has this spring and Father Time is worked out of the equation in the rapid paced changes of technology and consumer habits. But we’ll keep trying and keep “growing” as long as feasible. But next time you are tempted to jump online and order whatever it is you are hoping to order, please take a step back, think about where the item may be available in the neighborhood, understand that our stores and restaurants and shops cannot be open ‘round the clock and please shop locally, folks. We small business owners depend on you for our business survival.
Becky is co-owner of Beaver Pond Farm in Newport: firstname.lastname@example.org