It may be hard to imagine a farm with horse-drawn equipment reinventing the wheel, but that’s exactly what farm operators Chandler Briggs and Leila Schneider found themselves doing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hayshaker Farm in College Place is built on the idea that soil and humans go hand in hand, and good food belongs in the hands of everyone.
The farm is billed as “horse-powered farming,” with sustainable practices that put humans, animals and the environment at the forefront.
Now, Hayshaker has had to make some big changes in a short time, including new management methods, an online market, subsidized food plans and a partnership with other farms for the web-based store.
Its 8 acres of vegetables and herbs are normally sent out each year to a balance of farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores.
But that balance has been thrown off. Namely with the closings of the Whitehouse-Crawford restaurant — Hayshaker’s No. 1 client — and the pending closure of Soi 71 Thai Noodle House — another client, which two weeks ago on social media announced it would shut down for good at the end of this month.
“The restaurant sales dropped tremendously,” Briggs said. “We’re definitely gonna continue to feel that.”
There is some silver — or perhaps green — lining though. Regular retail sales have gone up since COVID-19 precautions began in the state. It has slightly plateaued as more farms and markets sprout up again, but Briggs said the sales are enough to sustain the crew.
“It’s not an easy time at all,” Briggs said. “... As a business, we had to make some changes with how we manage our employees with distancing, and being in the uncomfortable situation of being an essential business but trying to manage our employees’ lives outside of work.”
That, he said, was a tough row to hoe.
“Saying ‘do this, and don’t do this, and wear a mask.’ We do not like being in that position, but it felt like it was necessary to take those precautions with our business, because if one of us was to get sick it would impact us.
“Maybe we would be fine if we had to stop sales for two weeks, but there’s a lot of people who rely on our produce for sustenance and we would be letting them down. It sort of felt like a higher calling in the sense that there’s a lot of people that are relying on us.”
Even though the pandemic planted new financial and operational challenges, Briggs was adamant that finding ways to put others first was not a cumbersome mandate.
“As community members, we see small changes in our lifestyle as things that we can do to help our neighbors from not getting sick,” Briggs said. “There’s a lot of language on sort of this top-down idea, like the West Side is making us (do it). We don’t really feel that way. This is a moment when some small actions on all of our parts can help each other stay safe.”
Briggs, Schneider and the team are doing everything they can to get their produce into the hands of anybody who wants or needs it. They said selling online seemed be the safest method to do so.
The online store is robust, not limited to Hayshaker’s goods only. Flours from Joel’s Organics, beans from Walla Walla Organics and jams from Miles Away Farm also round out a large assortment of locally produced greens, dairy, dry goods and other products.
The expanded options may mean added expenses, but their gross receipts have grown as well.
Briggs and Schneider said the “goal is to curate a collection of grocery items on the same site that would help our community access healthy food and provide an outlet to other local farmers.”
They also run pick-up locations in Richland, Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla on Tuesdays, and just Walla Walla, 3-5 p.m., on Fridays. The new Walla Walla pickup location is inside The Showroom on Colville, where they are able have a large space that allows for more social distancing.
Friday marked the first time Hayshaker was able to sell to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program users — a first for them outside of farmers markets.
That step was important, since the farm owners also decided to forego the markets, at least for June. SNAP users can only purchase goods in-person, and Hayshaker employees had to be trained and verified to begin the SNAP benefits from the USDA.
The Showroom location is the only place SNAP users can pick up their food boxes from the farm for now.
Briggs said the program is a win-win for the community because it allows farms to float some sales while also providing healthy, nutritious options for the food bank.
Hayshaker was able to make quick pivots because of many factors, Briggs said, including having tech savvy workers, access to technology and even the privileges of farming the land.
But Briggs said he wants to make sure that he uses a leg up to lend a helping hand — to fight to make sure local people don’t experience food insecurity.
Hayshaker Farms’ new online market can be seen at ubne.ws/hayshakermarket.