When the Covid-19 pandemic swept into Minnesota weeks ago, there was no industry immune to its effects. From finance to farming, businesses are having to find new ways to stay afloat and continue serving their customers.
Iron Shoe Farm—a Princeton-based farm that partners with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to provide responsibly raised and grown Hereford beef, pastured chickens, Mangalitsa and Red Wattle pork, Muscovy duck, microgreens, edible flowers, eggs, and vegetables to local to restaurants throughout the Twin Cities and central Minnesota—was no exception. It lost 90 percent of its business in the span of 24 hours.
“We've lost nearly $25,000 in sales within the past 3 weeks,” says owner Carla Mertz. “We know that our restaurant business will return at some point, but there is uncertainty about when it will return, so we had to get creative quickly.”
Mertz may be a farmer now, but she hasn’t always been. She worked as a high-end luxury residential and commercial interior designer and wallcovering sales rep for more than 20 years before founding Iron Shoe Farm in 2013. She says her experience in the corporate world taught her a thing or two about the need for flexibility in business.
TCB: How has your work changed/been impacted by coronavirus?
Mertz | In a matter of 24 hours, we lost 90 percent of our customer base: local area restaurants. Several events we were to be a part of were cancelled, such as Cochon555 [a North American culinary tour promoting heritage pigs and responsible food production and consumption] and many other seminar series we were going to be speaking at.
Q: Anything you’ve able to do to compensate for lost work or create new streams of revenue?
A | A farmer’s work is never lost. We've just been forced to diversify and shift. Right now, we’re learning how to shift our sales to make them direct-to-consumer for the meantime. We are currently offering weekly pick-up CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] food bundles, featuring our products and bringing in additional products from other local farmers such as local honey from Silver Creek Farm and rabbit from 9 Rock Ranch. Our focus has always been on community, so for the past three weeks, we have also been focusing on donating lost products, like perishable microgreens, to several community kitchens like Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul and Justin Sutherland’s Public Kitchen outreach. We will continue growing this list and offer more pick-up and distribution options.
Additionally, this year, we started a new event series on our farm: our newly developed Iron Shoe Farms: Dinner on the Farm series, which offers customers with on-the-farm dining featuring local farm products and top local area chefs. Our first three dinners in the series are now tentatively rescheduled for May and the upcoming fall.
Q: Do you anticipate work bouncing back to normal?
A | do anticipate we’ll have restaurants purchasing from us again, but it may change just a bit and take some time for our previous accounts to get back to "normal.” I feel that the local food movement will be stronger than it was before.
Q: Any bright spots in this crisis?
A | We have been highly supported. Now more than ever, people want to know where their food is coming from. We've had nearly 50 new customers purchasing on a weekly basis. This is exciting.
We are also looking at additions to our business model in order to be able to provide more items for distribution. We are discussing the addition of storage and processing facilities, as this is a huge need for us in the ag sector in the state of Minnesota. Processors and freezer and cooler storage are lacking, and we see a great need for investment in this arena.
Q: Did anything from your corporate background influence how you’re dealing with this crisis as a farmer?
A | My background was one where I was a business owner. It taught me that networking, cold-calling, and brand recognition are keys to success. I am able to adapt to crises. I went through the housing crisis in 2008 as an independent interior designer and made changes in my career to withstand the change.