Sayer Palmer was ready to launch her businesses, coming into 2020. She’d long had plans to start a farming career, but they’d been delayed after she became pregnant in 2018. Now, she was ready to get started, providing fresh, local produce to Grafton, Canaan and Enfield.
“I had started ordering seeds, gathering supplies, and doing a lot of crop planning and business planning,” said Palmer, owner of Open Woods Farm in Grafton.
Then, in February, the coronavirus outbreak began to catch her attention. In March, Vermont announced that it would not open farmers' markets because of the pandemic, and Palmer was worried that NH might do the same, undermining her business plan.
“That was a wakeup call for me. I’m a very small farm so I don’t have the inventory to support a consistent wholesale account,” said Palmer, who farms one-eighth of an acre. “I really was relying on farmers markets.”
Palmer had a five-member CSA, but expected the bulk of her sales to come from her appearance at the Canaan farmers market. With that suddenly in question, she decided to set up an online retail market on her website.
“I learned about the value of being flexible and creative when it comes to the structure of my business,” she said. “I think that is a unique ability of very small, very local businesses over large corporate institutions. We are able to react almost immediately to shifts in demand and purchasing habits.”
Palmer decided that she would fulfill her CSA obligations first, then go to the Farmer’s market. Whatever produce was left could be ordered online for local delivery.
As the summer progressed, Palmer found that she only opened the online store once or twice a month, because she was regularly selling out at the farmers market.
“The demand for my produce was overwhelming,” she said.
When she did need to sell online, she relied on Facebook ads to let people know that produce was available. As she invested in the ads, she also built her own email list, and today she’s able to notify her customer base directly when produce is available online.
While the pandemic increased demand for local food, it reinforced what Palmer had already suspected: that her area was craving local produce.
“I’m committed to serving this immediate community because there’s not a lot of access to local foods without driving to Lebanon, Plymouth or New London,” she said. “As long as there’s demand, I’m committed to providing that service to this area.”
Recently, Palmer received a grant to build a greenhouse that will allow her to produce leafy greens and other vegetables year-round. She’s not comfortable attending indoor farmers markets, so she plans to sell that produce exclusively online.
“That’s when the [digital] store really kicked in for me,” she said, “now that people are used to buying from me online.”
Palmer and her husband own 30 acres in Grafton, but the land is heavily wooded. To start her farm, they cleared a small parcel of land, which inspired the name of the business. Now, they’re working to double the farmable land for next year. She’s planning to have 10 CSA members in 2021, since this year has shown her how much food she can produce.
“I had no idea, if I put the effort in, how productive a small amount of land could be,” Palmer said. “It’s just been a completely sustainable business model.”
As she grows the business, Palmer has started to collaborate with other local food producers in her three-town area. She engages with customers on social-media, which strengthens the connection and loyalty they feel to her as a food producer.
“People respond well to hearing my story and seeing what I’m doing for the day,” Palmer said, taking a break from transplanting onions. “Then they feel better about buying food from me. Beyond being a farm, I’m also a business person and I have to promote my business and engage with the community if I want to be successful.”
Sayer Palmer, pictured with her daughter at the Canaan Farmers market. (courtesy photo)