On New Year’s morning, Luke Shlagel of Shlagel Farms was among a handful of vendors at the weekly Del Ray Farmer’s Market. Some customers asked why he wasn’t hanging out with his family and taking the day off, and he had a simple answer.
“If I hadn’t come on New Year’s Day, that would have been 20 days since the last market,” Shlagel said. “Christmas was on a Saturday, New Year’s Day was on a Saturday, and if I waited for the following Saturday, the eighth, that’s too long for the community to be without us.”
The Waldorf, Maryland, farm raises approximately 150 acres of fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products and flowers through a variety of avenues. Their bread and butter has been a 29-year-long contract supplying vegetables to Giant Food with vegetables, followed by directly selling their products to consumers at half a dozen farmers markets in Maryland and Virginia.
Del Ray is their biggest market, and customers can pick up pre-ordered boxes or shop in-person every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. Getting to this point, though, took a lot of work. Farmers markets were not deemed essential in Virginia at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Within weeks, though, Shlagel Farms was back in Del Ray with a new e-commerce site, and selling pre-ordered and boxed products for pickup.
“Maryland deemed farmers’ markets as essential, but not Virginia, and that hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Russell Shlagel, the company patriarch. “But now, thanks to our online sales, we have surpassed 2019 numbers. We were able to pivot, and we get emotional about it, how people said they needed us to supply them with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat.”
More than half (54%) of Virginia farmers market vendors started or expanded an online platform after the onset of the pandemic, according to the Virginia Farmers Market Association.
“The COVID-19 pandemic had far reaching effects on farmers market managers, vendors and customers during the 2020 market season,” the association reported. “Amidst supply chain shortages and panic buying, farmers markets were deemed non-essential infrastructure by the state during the pandemic.”
Sales are good, but there’s a catch, Russell Shlagel said.
“Within the last year, fuel costs have gone up drastically,” he said. “Crop protected costs, fertilizer, and labor have gone up drastically.”
Luke Shlagel said he compiled a customer email list before March 2020 in Del Ray, and that the company was ready. After all, his mother, sisters and wife are all ER nurses, and they warned the family of what was coming. For many Saturdays after Covid hit, the vendor was alone at the Del Ray market.
“We has a notebook and we asked customers to jot down their emails for us,” Luke said. “Then it was unbelievable. All of a sudden we have more than 300 orders coming in, and all of a sudden I’m in the position of shopping for your family, making sure that the product that I’m putting in these boxes is the very best. Really, it was the support of the people of our people in Alexandria that made the whole thing successful and made it come together and work well.”
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