SAVOR THE SEASON: Farmers, food producers not on pause

Ian Ater, the co-owner and operator of Fledging Crow Vegetables in Keeseville, dumps a crate of lettuce into a sink to be washed before it goes to market in June 2018. (News photo — Griffin Kelly)

The coronavirus outbreak has dramatically altered how many people are living their lives, and that includes how they get their local food.

At the Sugar House Creamery in Upper Jay, as the pandemic rages on, daily operations have changed little. The cows are still roaming the barns, still eating feed, still being milked. Cheese is still being made.

Sugar House Creamery has been around for nearly eight years. Co-owners Alex Eaton and Margot Brooks purchased the 23-acre farm in 2012, and the business has blossomed in the years since, with the farm selling more and more products out of its farm store. As time went on, they established connections with other producers and expanded their offerings. Now the farm store has everything from eggs, to beef, veal and sausage, to different types of cheeses and vegetables.

In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the closure of non-essential businesses starting at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 22. Farmers markets and food producers, such as the Sugar House Creamery, were deemed essential and allowed to remain open.

“Our day-to-day has not changed much,” said Eaton. “We’re a dairy farm, and we just have to keep milking the cows and making something with that milk.”

Farmers see uptick

As grocery stores struggle to keep shelves stocked, and essentials sell quickly, some farms are seeing an uptick in customers buying those essentials from local producers.

“We’re selling a lot of milk,” Eaton said. “I’m not sure why. It might just be that people are coming to our farm store that haven’t before.”

It’s not just milk that customers are buying, he said. It’s eggs, cheese, vegetables, meat.

Eaton can see the value of buying local food extending beyond supporting local producers.

“We have really healthy food that has been touched by very few people, and is hopefully close to the people who would buy it,” he said.

Food production has always been a highly regulated process, and Eaton said even before the spread of coronavirus became a concern, the farm has always prioritized food safety.

“We’re always extra cautious with sanitization,” he said. “We’re very careful about everything.”

North Country Creamery co-owners Ashlee Kleinhammer and Steven Googin wrote on social media on March 15 that even though they, too, follow a strict food safety plan, they would be reviewing their safety protocols.

“The CDC and FDA have assured the public that COVID-19 is not currently known to be transmitted through food or food packaging. That being said, we have still decided to review our food safety plan, and enacted even stricter sanitation protocols at this time,” they wrote.

The one thing that has changed since the coronavirus reached U.S. soil is the Sugar House Creamery’s approach to running its farm store at 18 Sugar House Way.

There’s now a limit of two shoppers at a time, Eaton said, and everything is being regularly sanitized.

“What’s unique and cool about our store is that you don’t have to touch much at all to shop there,” he said.

Doors that can be left open are being left open. When customers need to sign a receipt, they now use a clean pen and place it in a “used pen” jar, which is later re-sanitized.

Things like refrigerator door handles and the iPad screen for self-checkout are sanitized regularly.

“We tried to make it so you’re really only touching what you’re buying,” Eaton said.

At the Clover Mead Cafe & Farm Store in Keeseville, run by North Country Creamery, similar precautions are being taken.

“We are cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces that are frequently touched, such as handles, the iPad check out kiosk, cash box, and more, several times throughout the day,” Googin and Kleinhammer wrote on social media. “We have placed a container of sanitizer wipes on the counter in case you want to go the extra step and clean any of these surfaces yourself.”

Both farm stores are still open as usual. The Sugar House Creamery farm store is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the Clover Mead Cafe & Farm Store is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Delivery service

Fledging Crow Vegetables, a farm based in Keeseville, is collaborating with Juniper Hill Farms of Wadhams to offer residents another way to access local food.

In a social media post on March 16, the farm announced it would be kickstarting a wholesale delivery system for residents in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Keene and Plattsburgh.

The system would allow residents to choose available products online, select how much of that product they’d like to receive, and where they’d like to pick up their order. The minimum order price is $30.

Anyone interested in signing up can contact Fledging Crow by email at fledgingcrow@gmail.com with their name, contact information and desired pick-up location.