Local Food Collaborations Rise and Fall With Idaho’s COVID-19 Cases

Story and Photography by Lex Nelson

Two years ago, Boise farmer Jessica Harrold of Hen & Hare Microfarm decided to give her CSA program a facelift. Instead of offering only products from her farm, she pivoted to selling a monthly “Farm Snack Subscription.” It includes her products — like eggs, rabbit and homemade mustard — along with those from others.

“I’m open to work with any small farms and small local food-based businesses,” she said.
In her rotating baskets, bread from Acme Bakeshop appears side-by-side with local cheeses, fresh fruit, flowers and more.

In 2018, this idea of collaborating on produce boxes outside the farmers market was relatively rare. Then the Coronavirus pandemic hit.

In March the state was in lockdown and everything was uncertain, so inside their empty businesses entrepreneurs started hatching ideas that would keep farmers in the black and Boiseans supplied with local food.

Wild Plum Events and Meriwether Cider were two such think tanks. Wild Plum has long been locally focused and collaborative — its kitchen is a pickup spot for the Fiddler’s Green Farm CSA and a distribution center for Sunnyside Farms Asparagus — but the pandemic sharpened its mission. On March 21, it started offering weekly “Local Foods Baskets” full of offerings from farmers.

“We’ve got so many great friends in the local food and farm community, and chatting with everyone we realized they were in the same boat as we were with events cancelling and orders going down,” said Co-owner Tara Morgan. “For the first one, I reached out to friends that I had chatted with and knew were struggling, and asked if they wanted to get on board.”

Morgan’s contacts jumped on the idea, and it picked up steam on social media. Soon Morgan was putting together themed offerings like the “Grilling Basket,” featuring Wild Plum’s housemade knackwurst, Purple Sage Farms scallions, Fireside Mallow Co. marshmallows, and more for online ordering.

At Meriwether, Co-owner Kate Pettis started a similar initiative. She reached out to Waterwheel Gardens, Ohana No-Till Farm and North End Organic Nursery to put together Farmers Market Baskets of fresh produce, plant starts and cider that customers could shop for online. Meriwether also rolled out collaborative holiday baskets and joined forces with food trucks Crisp and Bistro Babe for “Take and Bakes.” Customers could snag an easy-to-reheat dish and sides from the food truck, add cider and pick it all up in one place.

“We were trying to make contact with people so that we didn’t all feel alone in this, and also kind of put our minds together to come up with something that was needed and also somewhat original,” Pettis said.

Lark & Larder, the locally focused grocery store Harrold co-owns, started hosting pop-up mini markets in the spring. Almost every weekend, Mohammed Ali of Treasured Mushrooms showed up alongside other producers to claim a free spot and sell vibrant pink oyster mushrooms from behind his mask.

“When we opened the store we always planned to have a [mid-week] farmer’s market, but when all of this started happening and the farmers market couldn open like usual, we wanted another avenue for farmers to sell produce, so we moved our market to Saturdays,” Harrold explained.

Some of these collaborations waned as Idaho’s COVID-19 cases dipped in April and May. By early June, Wild Plum and Meriwether had eased up on their collaborations, though Lark & Larder continued.

“It went really great up until the point when restaurants started opening up again,” Morgan said. “Then things started to slow down a little bit because I think people were a little less scared of going grocery shopping and things had settled into this new normal.”

Pettis echoed that sentiment, adding that as business picked up and the markets opened again, produce became harder to source and the labor costs began to outweigh the benefits. Harrold has kept up her pop-up markets, but is considering moving them to mid-week. Hen & Hare’s longstanding Farm Snack Subscription will continue on as usual.

“I know the pandemic highlighted the need to buy local, but ever since things have been relaxing I feel like a lot of the burst of local spending has died down a lot, which is really hard to see,” she said.

On July 11, Idaho’s Coronavirus cases soared to a daily high of 557, casting doubt on whether things were really heading back toward normal. If the state goes back to lockdown, Pettis said Meriwether would likely reverse course.

Considering the uncertain future, Jessica Harrold of Hen & Hare/Lark & Larder said, “I wish that people would consider trying to continually buy local throughout the year instead of just during times of severe stress or just around the holidays. Small businesses need support all the time, so I think it’s really key for people to recognize that and make an effort to keep showing up for the small farmers and artists, because they’re an important part of any community.”

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