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Finding your own food network in the time of coronavirus
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Flash in the Pan!

Finding your own food network in the time of coronavirus

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A brand new farmstand sits on a dirt road on the outskirts of Huson, Montana, population 210. Out of the way does not begin to describe its location, even by Huson standards. Tracy Potter-Fins, owner of County Rail Farms, sets out the offerings for the farmstand’s second day of business. Day No, 1 had resulted in one sale, thanks to Potter-Fins’ post on Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social network.

“She got onions, she got kale starts, she got carrots, she was psyched," Potter-Fins recounts, according on the customer's follow-up post on Nextdoor.

Prices are listed at the farmstand, but a sign says to pay as much as you can. In small-town Montana, that often isn’t much. The original idea, first proposed by her employee Arlyce Rosko last summer, was to offer unsold produce to the local community at a steep discount.

“We want to get as much food into the hands of low-income people as we can without hurting our business,” Potter-Fins said.

Thanks to the pandemic, Potter-Fins’ marketing plan remains fluid, and her farmstand could play a crucial role beyond its original job as discount surplus liquidation site. From a social distancing perspective, that first sale could not have gone better. The customer came, shopped and left without any face-to-face or hand-to-hand interactions. In addition to being an unstaffed point of sale, the farmstand will also be a drop-off point for online orders, and perhaps more, depending on how the season unfolds.

Consumers of fresh veggies, meanwhile, are also weighing their options. For numerous virus-related reasons, many are looking to take a more active role in their food supply chains. Some are stockpiling canned goods, while others don’t want to go anywhere near a supermarket. Many are preparing to grow their own, or doubling down on their local food networks.

Many people finally have the time to dig that garden or build that chicken coop. But the only hitch is if you want an actual chicken for that coop, or seeds for that garden, you'll have to wait. Chicken hatcheries are about a month behind the backlog of orders, and seed companies are behind as well. Some have stopped taking new orders until they catch up. Johnny’s Seeds, the lion in the family farm seed space, has suspended sales to non-commercial growers.

Vegetable farms like County Rail, meanwhile, are preparing for farmers markets that may or may not be busy, or even open, and restaurant accounts that may or may not exist. “Most of us don’t know what for sure to do right now,” Potter-Fins said. “We don’t know if we will be able to sell our food, or if people will be able to pay for it. We’re looking at all the different ways that might work to get food into the community.”

At Frank’s Little Farm in Missoula, the Roadside Stand is as old as the farm itself. After building a farmstand at Mill Crick farm outside Hamilton, Frank’s co-owner Sean McCoy built his own on newly purchased land in 2014. McCoy loves that farmstand, set to open May 1. “The idea is to have something available seven days a week, dawn to dusk, with no staffing cost. We stock it and people come serve themselves.”

Frank’s Little Farm is named in honor of slain Montana labor activist Frank Little. The Roadside Stand has a locked cash box and also accepts Venmo. “The honor system works well, because most people are honest,” McCoy said.

Nobody has any idea how the summer will play out. But as long as the honor system holds, neighborhood farmstands could become important links in many new food supply chains — with or without a global pandemic.

“I don’t know anyone who has put up a stand and not done well with it,” Potter-Fins said. The hardest part is letting them know you exist. “It will be interesting to see if we get any traffic.”

To augment her new internet ordering system and other advances online, Potter-Fins also has a local marketing plan. “I’ll put a sign at the communal mailboxes, letting people know we are here,” she says. “And I’ll put one at the bar.”

In Huson, Montana, that counts as total saturation.

Finding your Farmstand

A good farmstand can require detective work to locate. Here are some rules of thumb to help in your search.

Step one: Go to the bar and see if anyone has put up fliers.

If that doesn’t work, contact any local farmers you know, and check in. Find out what their plans and outlooks are.

Go to the website for your local farmers market, and scan the list of vendors for any you recognize. Hopefully there will be contact info. If not, look them up.

Look for chat rooms, email lists, Twitter accounts or local online resources. Type the keyword “famstand” into any search field you can find.

In each of the conversations inspired by the steps above, ask about farmstands. Do they have one? Do they know of any? Do they know anybody who might know?

This is the way to not just find a farmstand, but to find your way around your own personal food network. And even if the search doesn’t end in an actual farmstand, hopefully you will have still found what you are looking for.

Ari LeVaux

Ari LeVaux

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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