Bay Area farm teams up with customers in recipe for success during COVID-19 pandemic

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (KGO) -- California farms are expected to lose billions of dollars this year because of disruptions to the food supply chain caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But while many farms struggle, some small Bay Area farms are thriving - using a very specific recipe for success.

"I had no idea I was preparing for this (pandemic), but it turned out - I was," said farmer Paul Hamilton.

Hamilton and his partner Aurora Wilson own Greenhearts Family Farm in Half Moon Bay. They grow fresh organic produce and deliver it in prepacked boxes directly to homes in most of the Bay Area. Business has more than doubled since the pandemic hit according to Hamilton.

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"We are so grateful now not to have to make the extra trips to the store," said customer Caitlin Noble. Noble has been a customer for eight years and when the shelter in place orders began a lot of people wanted to join her.

Now more than three months later the basic farming has not changed much, but the rest of the business has.

"We had to definitely invest in bigger trucks, more employees, more delivery vans, and just push, push, push," Hamilton said.

Greenhearts Family Farm is part of a movement called Community Supported Agriculture, usually known as CSA for short.

Customers pay in advance to get boxes of assorted fruit and vegetables every one or two weeks. They can invest on a weekly basis or get a yearlong subscription. So before the farmer plants any seeds he or she knows somebody will buy the crop.

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Greenhearts customers also get special visits to the farm so they see where their food comes from and develop a relationship with the people who grow it.

"We built community support and we have a tremendous community of thousands of people who've helped us through all kinds of problems," Hamilton said.

Community Supported Agriculture is actually an old idea that Greenhearts updated with online orders for home delivery, modern marketing techniques, and partnerships with other local farms that also provide produce for the boxes.

The concept was already working but the pandemic sent it into overdrive and required some key workplace changes.

Greenhearts used to pack its weekly boxes in a San Francisco warehouse but social distancing was impossible, so they quickly set up a big canopy on the farm and moved the operation outside.

Unlike most bigger farms Greenhearts keeps its staff of about twenty people all year long so employees don't move from farm to farm with the potential to spread disease.

"One thing good about working here at the farm is you get to eat very good," said farmworker and driver Kati Damante.

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Damante and all the other team members are multi-taskers, working in the field, packing produce boxes and driving delivery vans.

Farmworker and driver Andrew Jurado said he really appreciates all the signs he sees thanking delivery people.

"A big point of the (home) deliveries was always shaking hands and being part of that community. We don't do that anymore," Hamilton explained. Now it is all about minimizing contact.

Driver Kati McHugh showed us how she sanitizes between each delivery, then leaves the boxes on the doorstep. "I try to ring the doorbell with my elbow or knock on the door with my elbow," she said.

The same amount of caution is happening out in the field according to Tom Erickson who helps manage the Greenhearts team. Erickson is in his mid-60s and said he does not want to take any chances with anybody's health.

Erickson calls himself an "ex-suit and tie guy" who has been working at Greenhearts for six years and loves the job.

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"My current situation is that my wife is a school teacher. She's working from home, so we really take this COVID thing very seriously. We feel like we are in that high risk group," Erickson said.

Another big change is the newcomers to the farm.

One of them is Ryan Williams who used to be a bartender in San Francisco.

"They shut us down in March. I quarantined myself and then I started looking for a job, and now I get to learn about farming, get to be outside, get to drive all around San Francisco feeding families - which is really cool," Williams said.

Greenhearts Family Farm started in 2008 and survived the last big recession. The team learned a lot along the way and now the farm appears poised to be a survivor once again.

"We have just devoted ourselves to feeding people all these years and now when they need us the most, we have everything in place to do the things they count on us for" Hamilton said.
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