When the governor declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, Alisha Utter decided that her farm needed to change the way it did business.
Arbor Farmstead in Grand Isle used to rely on income from farmers markets, which Utter quickly realized weren’t going to open for a while. So she decided to make a website where she could sell her food directly to customers, while still maintaining a direct farm-to-consumer connection.
Right after the website went live, one of her neighbors wrote in, saying she was interested in buying some food for someone else in the community who might need it a little bit more than she did.
Other people echoed this same desire. There were people in need of food, and people who wanted to help neighbors who were struggling.
That’s where the idea for Grand Isle “community baskets” was formed. When Utter’s regular customers order food from her farm, they have the option to buy a few extra things, with choices ranging from fruits and vegetables to pasta and bread. Those food items stay “for sale” in the “community basket” on the farm’s website until someone in need logs onto the site and picks from those already purchased items. When they check out, their total is $0.
Each week, Utter drives around Grand Isle and the surrounding areas, delivering boxes of food to people who have ordered — both regular customers and those receiving donations.
Soon she was delivering community baskets to 10 households, with donations totaling more than $1,000. Some support has come from out of state.
But Utter was frustrated by how the system worked. She was able to give food to people, but because she asked people to stay inside while she dropped the deliveries on their porches, she wasn’t able to ask what they really needed.
To get a better sense of what they needed, Utter and her partner sent out a survey. The results left them with an ethical dilemma. People said they hoped to get eggs from Utter’s farm.
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Utter happens to keep about 25 chickens, most of which lay eggs, on the farmstead, but the hens have passed their peak of productivity. Utter and her partner don’t believe in profiting from the exploitation of animals, so the eggs that their hens produce are usually eaten by farm dogs — not sold with the rest of their food.
But during the pandemic, Utter said they found it necessary to shift their priorities.
“We have a list of values here at the farm, and right at the top is supporting and feeding our community,” Utter said. “So when people said, ‘we need eggs,’ we said, ‘OK, we need to do this.’”
Any small amount of money that they have made from the eggs, Utter said they’ve donated to an organization called CIDER, or Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources. She said after the pandemic, they probably won’t continue the egg business, but wanted to keep it going while people were still in need.
Utter said that kind of adaptation is key to what they do. With a pandemic changing life every day, she said it’s been crucial for to continue to be aware of the community’s needs, and shift their response to align with them.
Now that summer is here and Covid-19 restrictions are loosening, Utter said they’ll likely shift away from deliveries. Instead, she said they’re trying to set up a system where people can come to them and take what they need, so the couple can devote more of their time on farming.
“I think we just need to be constantly evolving to be responsive to community need,” Utter said. “I don’t see us solving food insecurity, but as long as we’re keeping our neighbors fed, we’re meeting our foundational goal as farmers.”
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