By Matt Reese
Farmers markets are a staple for marketing many of the products from Wishwell Farms Produce in Logan County, and that meant some major changes for the start of the 2020 sales season. Brothers Jason and Joel Wish sell more than 20 different farm products at 10 to 12 Ohio farmers markets throughout the growing season, each with a slightly different response to COVID-19.
Two of their top markets, Worthington Farmers Market and Clintonville Farmers’ Market in northern Columbus, switched to all online ordering in late March. The Clintonville Farmers’ Market actually moved locations to a larger parking lot facility off of I-71.
“Several of the markets are requiring us to do online ordering and a pickup at the markets. Instead of the traditional farmers market where the vendors set up a tent and table and display their produce and the customers would walk up and purchase it, we are not allowed to do that yet this year,” Jason said. “We had to build a website store where the customers can shop online at their convenience and place their orders. Then they will pick them up at certain Saturday farmers markets. They drive right through. The orders are pre-bagged with their order number and we place it in their back seat or trunk and they drive away. And, not every car orders from you and you have to figure which cars ordered from you out how to load them.”
The farm website tracks available quantities and subtracts from the total as orders are placed from customers. In the online system, much of the typical farmers market connection with the customer is lost.
“We all have to wear masks and gloves,” Joel said. “There is no mingling, just a long line of vendors. The customers are all in their cars and they drive down the line. Customers are supposed to have their order taped to their windshields and they don’t even roll their windows down. They have already paid ahead. A lot of them just have their trunk open and we don’t even talk to them we just give them the bag.”
There are additional costs for the farm, too, for customer convenience of paying ahead online. In addition, in a typical walk-up market, the customers are bagging up the products they purchase. With online orders, Jason and Joel have to do all the organizing, packaging and labeling ahead of time.
“Last week we had 80 orders. I have a spreadsheet inventory list,” Jason said. “We have been able to keep up so far with the small number of orders we have early in the season, but as we ramp up in June we may have 500 orders from just one farmers market. Logistically it is constantly evolving and it takes a lot of time to figure out how things are flowing. Right now orders are pretty small and markets are just getting started. As the season builds and more farmers have more produce, it will be interesting to see how things change.”
Another challenge for Wishwell Farms is that they offer some unique products including a homemade relish, salsa and maple syrups that depend heavily on samples for sales.
“I can’t do samples now so it will be interesting to see how things go. We’ll have to try do sampler packs and maybe offer discounts to get people to try new things instead of offering samples,” Joel said. “I have cinnamon coffee infused maple syrup and most people do not want to get that until they try it. Once they try it, about half the people buy it.”
The changes are not necessarily ideal, but there are some benefits.
“It does allow people who are fearful of going to a grocery to order everything online and drive through in their car,” Joel said. “There is potential to bring in more people. People are able to spend more time viewing our products online instead of quickly walking passed in the farmers market through the crowd where you don’t have a lot of time to push your product. There is a lot more potential exposure to our products. Hopefully we are getting new customers this year and the walk up customers will come back as the that business comes back.”
An additional challenge with the system is a lack of impulse buying from customers. With high quality products, Wishwell Farms sells a fair amount to customers just passing by.
“Because they are stable products, if sales are down on the relish and the syrup they don’t have to be thrown out like some produce items. At a walk up style market, I have a pretty good idea of what customers will want and the quantities we need to take to a particular market,” Jason said. “Now, if it doesn’t get ordered ahead online, it doesn’t get bagged and taken to market. Certain perishable items are going to left at home. How are we going to sell those?”
With just a couple of weeks of the sales season for the farm so far, there have been mixed results with the new way of doing business.
“Sales are definitely down for us. It is still early, though, because we have only been to one week of farmers markets,” Jason said. “We are a little behind this year too. Normally we’ve already been going to markets for three weeks, so there is still potential for things to go well.”
As other farmers markets open for the season, some will be mostly back to normal. Others are planning to transition back to walk-up style markets in coming weeks. The Wish brothers are looking forward to the change.
“We really prefer the walk-up style market. That is the way we have always done things. People want to walk up, smell, look at, touch, and taste the produce. They want to be with their friends and families and enjoy a cup of coffee. The farmers market is a gathering place. If you take that away it definitely affects things,” Jason said. “In June, more markets will be opening up. There will be some restrictions put in place. They are spacing vendors further apart to make it safer. For us, I can’t wait until the walk up markets start and I can’t wait until they start transitioning to that during June.”
The change has allowed some insight into customer behavior and demonstrated the commitment of their loyal customers to supporting local agriculture.
“It has been amazing to me how many customers are die-hard farmers market type buyers. They want to support local farmers,” Jason said. “At a walk-up market you don’t always know the people who are buying from you and if they are there to support farmers or if they just walked in off the street and saw something they liked and they are there to have a good time. I have had a lot of people reaching out to me looking for local items to support local farmers. I think that is really neat.”
The short-term transition this spring for the business has been one part of a long evolution for Wishwell Farms that went from dairy production in the 1960s, and row crops to the production of 70 acres sweet corn, tomatoes, green beans, chrysanthemums, peppers, eggplant, and many other crops along with 1,500 acres of row crop production. Jason and Joel’s parents, Jim and Susan Wish, transitioned out of dairy back in 2002 as they looked to the next generation of their three sons who had no interest in milking cows. Jason, the eldest son, ramped up sweet corn production in the mid-90s while he was in college and the operation grew from there. Joel, their youngest son, returned to the farm in 2014 with a mechanical engineering degree and an interest in turning the old milking parlor into an inspected, commercial processing facility to produce his mother’s famous relish recipe on a larger scale. He has since added the salsa and maple syrup from around 1,200 taps on the farm. Greenhouse production now accounts for about a third of their sales. Crops are also grown in field production and in raised beds.
They sell products right off the farm, travel to 10 or 12 farmers markets and set up at a handful of satellite locations as well. The brothers rely on family, a few long time employees and college students to represent them at their retail locations. Wishwell Farms Produce is taking the challenges of 2020 in stride, but the brothers are also wishing for a return to normal.
“I think the market managers have done a lot of work and have done really well with what they have given,” Jason said. “Throughout June most are shifting back to traditional walk up markets and it will be interesting how people around Columbus will respond. Will they be scared to death? In my mind none of this is needed. How can it be more dangerous to go to a farmers market outside than a grocery store?”