How a local produce stand is managing mid-pandemic

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, simple trips to the grocery store have become a tedious task. Two months after Governor Jay Inslee made restrictions on gatherings, the lines to the register often still go all the way to the back of the store. In contrast to this, Country Farms, a small local store on Highway 99 is a less chaotic place to get food. Walking into Country Farms is a breath of fresh air because the front of the store is wide open and the produce makes a rainbow of color that catches your attention.

It has a well established customer base from all walks of life. Some of the customers have been coming for decades and some are driving on Highway 99 when they notice it and decide to come in. This small store is where many locals are shopping for their essential fresh goods. It is important to support local businesses especially now, during this very uncertain time in our economy. Cynthia, the previous owner of Country Farms, has concerns regarding the virus. “[It’s] scary, because we don’t have corporate support and if one person gets sick we have to close.” 

Country Farms is a family owned and was created in 1946, so they’re approaching 75 years of business. It started as a single produce truck that has been expanded to six that travel up and down the West Coast. There have been three previous generations of the Waters family who have looked after Country Farms. They now have four locations that spread from Edmonds to Everrett and all the way to Lake Stevens and Burlington further North from the college campus. In the fall they sell big orange pumpkins and gourds and in the winter they sell Christmas trees.

The most recent owner, Aaron, has been working at Country Farms since he was 14 and his mom, Cynthia, has been working there for 21 years. Due to the virus they opened their business three and half weeks late. When asked if she was worried about the opening during the virus Cynthia said “Definitely,” and mentioned her 86 year old mother’s respiratory problems and her concern with having asthma herself. Because it is a family business those who work there have to consider their family and the business as one. 

Long-time customers of Country Farms eagerly await for their opening, which typically takes place at the beginning of April. The produce that is grown locally is sold at Country Farms as it comes into season. Currently, they are selling asparagus, apples and rainier cherries from Washington. Cynthia mentioned some uncertainty with how the businesses Country Farms works with are dealing with the virus. She is aware of the interconnection between businesses and recalls that they “used to have restaurant owners that bought wholesale that I haven’t seen [this year].” She also expressed concern about who would take farmers’ place if they got sick or quit because of COVID-19.

Cynthia and her employee of the last 23 years, Tim, spoke about how Country Farms had been vandalized. In fact, it has happened twice in one week. Food was stolen and the glass on one of their refrigerators was shattered, allowing them to steal dairy products as well. Crime in the neighborhood has been common, as several people have reported having their cars broken into as well.

Though work seems a bit unstable at the moment, there are advantages to this kind of business. As an open market, they are able to give people the space to spread out and socially distance themselves. When first opening, they decided to close every other register to keep the customers spread out. Employees have been wearing gloves and masks when handling the food and interacting with customers. Employees also sanitize the shopping carts and baskets to prevent the spread of germs from one customer to the next. 

Tim noticed Country Farms has been seeing their regulars less frequently. This is not a surprise, as the majority of their regulars tend to be seniors who are at a higher risk of COVID-19. They come once a week or less rather than stopping in a few times a week, as they usually would. When they do, they avoid busy times and come in early in the mornings or later in the evenings. Nonetheless, new customers have been finding their way to Country Farms. Business otherwise is better than usual because people are looking for places that are open, and Country Farms still is. 

With a smile on her face Cynthia says that to her Country Farms means “Happiness, happiness. Getting to see customers and seniors that made it through the winter season is like a flower blooming.” 

Fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy are the essential items many will venture out of their houses once a week for, but some customers have been taking the food growing into their own hands.

“One thing that we have done is sell lots and lots of vegetable starts,” emphasizes Cynthia.

Tim adds, “and lots of potting soil!”

This is a unique way to adapt to the virus because you could have home grown food by the time the stay at home order is finished. It’s also a great way to spend your time while stuck at your house. Not to mention that all the different options of fruits and vegetables make cooking feel exciting. What new colors and flavors are there that you have never tried before? Despite the challenges we are all facing during this pandemic, there are opportunities for new beginnings; even if it’s a food you’ve never tried, a new tomato plant, or flowers for your garden.