The Coronavirus Economy: When you’re a farmer who supplies now-closed restaurants

April 2, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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On his father Glenn’s side, Ian Brendle’s family goes back six generations in agriculture. The Brendles’ sustainability-focused farm, Green Meadow, spreads out across 22 acres of Lancaster County, the south-central Pennsylvania district boasting the most productive nonirrigated farmland in the U.S. “One in every five jobs in Lancaster County is ag-based,” Brendle says.

The county has been a literal lifeline for Philadelphia from the days Hamilton hung around Independence Hall; Lancaster Avenue, stretching 60 miles between town and country, was established so farmers could deliver their goods. Brendle continues in that tradition, running delivery trucks (two in the winter, up to four in the high growing seasons) every Thursday from Green Meadow to 120 chef clients—nearly all of whose restaurants have been temporarily closed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Fortune spoke with Brendle for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his employment status and his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he is handling this news both emotionally and financially. The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Ian Brendle’s family goes back six generations in agriculture.
Ian Brendle

Fortune: How did Green Meadow get started?

Brendle: My dad was born into farming, then went to college and worked in engineering, but he always kept a half-acre garden. One day he decided farming was what he wanted to do. He started by taking Amish guys down to Reading Terminal Market back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, then he asked if he could bring a few items from his garden to sell. It just sort of grew from there. Chefs would come in and buy stuff from him to use at the restaurants, and eventually he took an old pickup truck, threw a box on it, and started taking stuff into the city.

Was there much interest in local, sustainably grown produce back then?

When my dad first started, it was really a tough sales pitch to try to charge twice the amount of money for the same type of thing [chefs] would buy down at the produce junction. It took explaining, “Well, hey, I just picked this yesterday. So it’s only been out of the ground since yesterday. If you take care of it, you’ve got two weeks until you have to use it as opposed to something that’s shipped in that could have been picked 10 or 14 days before the time that you receive it.” So that was really the selling point that he drove home early on, then just kind of built on that.

When did things really take off for the farm?

The wholesale business was already in place before I decided to make [farming] my livelihood around the early 2000s. That’s when you could say it really exploded, and I saw more and more people really, really being into where the food came from. Our weekly order list goes out to about 650 individual email addresses, and about 120 order consistently through the year. At slow times, like right after the holidays, we might only have 35 or 40 deliveries. Then at the height, late summer into early fall, we’re looking at up to 75 deliveries to make in one day.

The mid-Atlantic is on the precipice of spring—fruit trees are flowering, ramps are popping. What’s the mood like on the farm?

Dealing with the uncertainty, not being able to just go 100% full bore into spring season has definitely been a real kick in the ass. The week before everything went down, we made 53 deliveries. The restaurants that are doing takeout and delivery are still ordering. I would say that represents 10% of our typical business. We also use recycled fryer oil from restaurants to power our greenhouses, and that’s not available now. We have enough for the rest of this season, but if we don’t have a stockpile built up for winter, we’re missing out huge.

What’s the economic impact of that for a small family farm like Green Meadow?

In good times, it’s incredibly hard to make money farming. I think one of the reasons why farmers and chefs get along so well—and I think, as a whole throughout the country, farmers and chefs get along really well—you pour everything you have into [a farm or a restaurant] both financially and psychologically, and you get very little financial return. I really feel like the U.S. government was caught with its pants down. If there was ever a more glaring notification to everyone that things truly need to change in this country, this is it.

Is that a common sentiment among the farmers in your area?

Besides the people who grow stuff for us, I don’t really talk to other farmers in my area. Since Trump has been in office, I’ve let my feelings be known. My dad and I and our crew here, we are not the norm in agriculture in Lancaster County.

Green Meadow supplies 120 chef clients—nearly all of whose restaurants have been temporarily closed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ian Brendle

With chefs as Green Meadow’s primary customers, how are you adapting the farm’s business?

So basically, as everything was going down, my right-hand man, Dave Carr, he was like, “Dude, let’s just do a produce box for the public.” I know doing a farm share or farm box or CSA is nothing new, but it’s totally new to us—fish out of the water for real. We’re doing a $30 single farm box and a $55 double farm box, as well as meat and dairy boxes, and have four pickup locations in and around Philly.

What’s in a typical farm box?

Right now, more than ever, everyone’s immune system needs to be as boosted as possible, so we’re going to be putting in things we grow that are naturally antiviral or really good for your immune system. This week, for example, we’ll have holy basil and shungiku, which is a Japanese chrysanthemum and used in parts of Asia as a cold tonic. Honey. Mushrooms. All the rabes, which are incredibly nutritious and taste good, too.

Do you think the boxes will help carry the farm during this time?

We have about 60 sign-ups so far and are hoping to get to about 100, but honestly I’m not even thinking about ourselves right now. I’m thinking about our butcher, who’s got a mortgage and bills to pay, and our network of 15 to 20 farmers who also grow for us. I’ve got an egg guy, John B. King, who increased his flock for me last year. This is when chickens start to go into cruise control, and he’s got to move those eggs. We need to stay afloat so that we don’t lose our ass, but we also have to help as many other people along the way as we can.

Does working so closely with nature on the day to day give you a different perspective on the situation?

I think anyone that works in the elements or works outside would say it does. I think this is a time where we’re able to reflect and realize we all take things for granted. This is that time in our history where we’re going to look back and be like, “Man, up until that point we took so much for granted.” And hopefully we change.

What does the planting plan look like moving forward?

We’re still going to do all the same shit that we were going to do. We might dip a little bit more into the acreage for corn and grain, but we’re still putting tomatoes out, still putting peppers out. I just need to deal with the unknown of whether I am going to be able to sell 18 boxes of peppers in July. But we’ll keep farming our ground. We’ll keep going till the wheels fall off, man.

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