Pandemic spurs Visser Farms to find creative ways to offset losses, serve community

The farm economy nationwide has taken some of the hardest hits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and local farmers have not been spared the gut-punch to their incomes.

When Visser Farms of Zeeland lost half of their income overnight from the closure of Michigan dining establishments, the farm partners dug deep to find creative solutions to offset the loss of 40 restaurant accounts. 

“This is a huge revenue loss to us, and we had to do something,” said Case Visser, sales manager for the farms' restaurant accounts.
Case Visser is sales manager for the farms' restaurant accounts.
Consistent sales to food establishments year-round help stabilize the farm’s annual income, especially through winter and early spring, when expenses are high due to planting and preparation for the growing season, and revenue is lowest. The farm was coming off a poor 2019 season, when too much rain, cold temperatures, and overall poor growing conditions plagued crops.

The partners met the challenge head-on to not only restore their lost income but to provide a service to the community in the form of creative, non-touch methods of obtaining local, fresh food.

Pop-up farmers market 

The need to bring the storefront to the public is a growing trend, as seen in the explosion of food trucks and pop-up stores. So, why not a pop-up farm market?

The partners agreed that this strategy had potential to cover both objectives of income and service, and Visser became the operator of the farm’s new pop-up market, at 461 Chicago Drive in Holland.
 
Visser said that the market was working well, and customers had adjusted to a grab-and-go, no-touch bagged system. Unfortunately, Holland Township does not allow parking lot sales, and shut the operation down effective May 16.
Visser Farms had to close its popular farm stand in Holland Township.
“It is very frustrating,” Visser said. “The community was really gathering around us, and we were filling a need to customers for that fresh produce. We are trying to work with the township, but we can’t seem to talk to anyone, and they are just not willing to work with us.”

There are two ways to resolve the issue so the farm stand is compliant with Township requirements, according to John Said, Holland Charter Township’s director of community development. One would be that the Visser farm stand operation takes occupancy of and operates inside the building and then obtains approval for an accessory outdoor display and sales in the parking lot, and the other is to apply for a change to the zoning ordinance to allow the outdoor farm stand in a commercially-zoned area. 

“We would really like to see a future there on Chicago Drive, but with the township meeting only once or twice a month, this could take months to resolve,” Visser said. “If this delay was going on in the winter, it would be one thing, but we need the summer sales to survive the winter.”

In the meantime, Visser Farm had recently signed a three-month lease to hold another pop-up market in the Waukazoo Woods area. The Waukazoo Market is located in grassy lot by the Itty Bitty Bar, at 1136 Ottawa Beach Road, in Park Township. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. 

Visser said the neighborhood is supportive of the market and sales are growing there. 

At the farm stand, apples, potatoes, carrots, spinach, parsnips, and more are bagged and ready for customers. Local eggs, honey, maple syrup, and beef are also available. Available products will vary throughout the season.

Since 1992, Visser Farms has stood next to The Great Bread Company of Allendale at the Holland Farmers Market. Owner Jeff Meyers says he has become close friends with the Visser family. 

Customers have the option of buying by the bag.“We are more like family. That’s why we invited Jeff to join us in the pop-up market, to help him maintain his business, and to provide another local product and make it even more convenient for shoppers,” Visser says. 

Lost revenue

Meyers lost more than 90% of his revenue when Michigan closed much of its economic activity. As a small company, The Great Bread Company was grateful to have a sales outlet. 

“In the early spring and during the summer, I sell at several farmers markets and craft shows, and most of them have already been canceled,” Meyers says. “The entry fees for those craft shows have already been paid and are not likely to be refunded.”

Meyers observes that the demand for local food has increased. “A lot of people want to come and keep people employed in the local area,” he says. “Big stores are doing well, with record sales. It’s the little guys who are getting hurt.”

Visser felt the early frustration of not being allowed to sell the plants, both decorative and vegetable, filling the farm’s greenhouses. “We are filled with plants, and we can’t sell any of them,” he says. “We need to get people in their gardens and buying vegetable plants soon.”

Online Ordering

The second strategy the farm embraced was online sales and ordering.

The Waukazoo Market on Ottawa Beach Road is open three days a week.At visser-farms.com, customers can buy CSA memberships, produce, flower pots, vegetable plants, eggs, and honey — even branded Visser Farm caps and T-shirts – for pick-up at the farm. 

“We never really thought this would take off,” Visser said. “We are surprised at the amount of orders we are getting. It is huge. People place their order, take their tray, and come back for more. This was something we never did before the shutdown.”

Teaching Seasonality

Visser hopes the permanent structure and a year-round presence can bring change to the way people think about food. 

“We want them to see that they are buying directly from a farmer,” he says. “We want them to know the seasons and what we have in season and when is the time to buy it.”

“I would think that people would want to can more than ever before, so that if they are ever in a crisis again — and, Lord willing, we won’t be — but that people can be stuck home but stocked up, and not have to go to the grocery store.”

Visser Farms is changing and increasing production in some crops in anticipation of the expected surge in home food preservation this summer by planting more squash, beans, tomatoes, pickles, and cucumbers, and having more vegetable plants available for sale at markets and the farm. 

“We hope it helps people realize that, if they can and put up food themselves, they can be a little more self-sufficient,” Visser says.

Visser Farms Story

Visser Farms is operated by the fifth generation of family farmers. The farm began in 1902, raising celery and onions. Through the years, it has evolved and tried different products, including hogs. The partners have settled on the produce, greenhouse, and you-pick combination they operate today. It fits the skills, interests, and resources of the partners and the land, while sustaining a year-round income for the seven Visser families and three full-time employee families making their living from the land. 

Today, the farm operates at six farmers markets – including Holland and Grand Haven – during peak season and one year-round market, which together comprise the farm’s bread and butter, according to Visser. They also sell greenhouse plants, flowers, baskets, and decorative planters at the Shipshewana flea market in May and June, operate a CSA farm share program, and furnish produce to local restaurants.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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