Skagit County farms are exploring online sales as a way to adapt to business challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some have reported a surge in online sales this year.
Like many small farms, Farias Farm, an organic vegetable and berry farm east of Burlington, was left with fewer options to sell at farmers markets — a major source of income — due to COVID-19 restrictions.
To adapt, the farm launched online sales, said Juan Farias, who runs the farm with brothers Francisco and Sergio.
He said prior to the pandemic, the farm hadn’t seen much of a need for an online store.
“That need did come up so we had to be creative so food didn’t go to waste,” Farias said.
The farm's online store gave customers the option to pick up produce directly from the farm in Skagit County, or to pre-order and pick up at the Shoreline Farmers Market in King County.
Farias said the online store will remain open into the fall, giving the farm the option to extend its usual farmers market season. He said customers have appreciated options for pre-ordering and limited-contact pickup.
Farias Farm sells its produce through Barn2Door, which helps farmers sell directly to customers online.
“I personally think it’s worth it once you get it all set up,” Farias said. “It takes upfront work, and once you have it set up and have the processes and systems, it can be something that is very worthwhile.”
Bow Hill Blueberries in Bow has seen a 400% increase in online sales since the pandemic began, said co-owner Susan Soltes. She attributes the increase to a surge in interest in immune-boosting foods, such as the farm’s pure blueberry juice.
The farm expanded its shipping department to accommodate the increase in online orders.
“I think if you can (start online sales), do it,” Soltes said. “You can get your product to more people further away, and you can still have your locals.”
Blake Vanfield, marketing coordinator for Genuine Skagit Valley, a branding program for Skagit County agricultural products, said the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in no-contact sales and online purchasing.
“It really is nice because you can still go directly to a farmer," she said. "It goes straight to them. Not through Amazon or another Goliath.”
She said one challenge for farmers is figuring out how to drive traffic to their websites, which can be like running a second business.
Silva Family Farm also started an online store this year, though sales have been slow, said owner Pablo Silva.
Silva started farming in 2017 at Viva Farms and now operates his own farm in Oak Harbor with wife Maura and their two children. The farm grows organic blueberries, strawberries and raspberries.
"We want to get more online customers because it would be nice for them to order and they can come pick it up," Silva said. "Not many people know about online stores."
Alex Perez, project manager at the Northwest Agriculture Business Center in Mount Vernon, said he assisted Silva in setting up a website several years ago, and that he recently worked with him on making creative social media posts to promote his business.
Silva said the more people know about and trust the farmers in their area, the more they will buy directly from them.
"It will work, but it will take time to know about the farmers," he said.