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How Small Farms and Ranches Are Adapting to Houston’s Restaurant Closures

Facing unsold goods and an uncertain future, local purveyors are focusing on selling direct to consumers

Farmers prepare spring veggies for markets
Plant It Forward Farms/Facebook

After Houston officials ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms through the end of March, farmers who depend on selling their goods to those restaurants are stuck trying to figure out what to do next.

Small farms in Houston and beyond face significant declines in revenue due to social distancing requirements in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. They’ve also got to figure out what to do with the produce that was originally supposed to end up on plates in some of the city’s best restaurants.

“About a fifth of our business each week is with restaurants,” said Plant It Forward Farms president Liz Vallette. “That means a fifth of our farmers’ incomes will be impacted for the foreseeable future.” Vallette’s organization works with economically disadvantaged refugees to grow, harvest, and sell produce to Houston chefs.

One bright spot has been local farmers markets, which have remained open alongside grocery stores despite restaurant closures. Plant It Forward farmers saw an increase in demand at these markets as of late, thanks in large part to grocery shortages created by panic-buying at supermarkets. “I think people probably didn’t score when they went to the grocery store and needed to find an alternative place to get fresh produce and other items,” Vallette said. “We were lucky that it was better than average sales over the weekend, but I don’t know that trend will continue.”

Plant It Forward Farms is also trying to ramp up interest in its farm share subscription, which allows Houstonians to pick up a weekly box of fresh produce grown by local farmers. Interest in Plant It Forward’s farm share, however, has been dampened by potential customers’ concerns about being in public spaces where others will pick up their orders. Compounding this problem is the closure of pick-up sites that are complying with recommended health guidelines around social distancing.

In response to these challenges, Plant It Forward is considering possibilities including home deliveries and canning overstock produce to later sell as a shelf-stable product. That said, preserving produce that would otherwise spoil requires Plant It Forward to can or pickle the products in commercial-grade facilities that have been approved by the city’s health department, which the organization has not yet secured.

“Tomato season always feels like this race, like there’s so many tomatoes and everybody’s so excited but we want to make sure we can sell all of them in a short time frame before they turn bad. So maybe this will be the year we’re forced to figure out canning tomatoes,” Vallette said. “So for all these chefs that are bored and have a commercial kitchen, we’re happy to do some tomato canning.”

Other local suppliers are also depending on increased retail sales to help soften the blow from lost restaurant sales, including Angleton wagyu beef purveyor R-C Ranch. “I fully understand that until we contain the virus we can’t go back to normal,” said Ryan Cade, one of R-C Ranch’s founders and the currently elected Precinct 2 Commissioner for Brazoria County. “The more people obey and pay attention to the quarantine demands, the quicker we can go back to normal.”

Like Plant It Forward, R-C Ranch is now looking directly to consumers, shifting its focus to generating more online sales and capitalizing on its presence at Houston meat markets, including League City’s Stone Cold Meats. “We’ve completely waived shipping for orders in the state of Texas when people buy online,” Cade said. “Go online, buy a couple ribeyes and a couple pounds of ground meat and a baseball cap, and we’re going to deliver it to you for free.”

Karyn Medders, whose Chubby Dog Farms provides whole hogs and giant cuts of pork to restaurants across the state, is also shifting her business to focus more on individual consumers as restaurants cancel their orders. “We’ve had whole pig orders canceled, and foresee our standing orders being canceled, although that hasn’t been confirmed,” Medders says. “We’ve had to switch gears and focus on retail, and our pork processing in the foreseeable future will be retail cuts.”

Even with these measures, Cade still expects the impact of the restaurant closures and social distancing to send shocks through the supply chain. But he’s hopeful that customer demand for high-quality meats will be enough to sustain his business over the long term. “People more than ever want to know where their food comes from. They want to understand the story, they want high quality food, they want to know about antibiotic and growth hormone use,” he said. “I think that the demand will always be there. But yes, I think in the short term, it’s going to hurt everybody.”