Editor’s Note: This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series that highlights how business leaders across NH, are meeting the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus.
2020 was supposed to be a banner year for Sarah Barkhouse, owner of Vera Flora Farm in Gilsum. For nine years, Barkhouse was a part-time florist, growing flowers and creating bouquets and displays during nights and weekends, while working during the day at nearby W.S. Badger Co.
Her floral business took off; and, with the 2020 wedding season booked, she quit her day job last fall to focus full-time on her business.
“Before this hit, I was ramping up to have the biggest wedding season,” she says.
But, with stay at home orders in place and wedding venues shut down, Barkhouse had to find another way to get her business through.
So now, Barkhouse finds herself focusing on her floral CSA, in hopes of making up the revenue she lost when all of her events through August were cancelled. Normally, the CSA is capped at 27 participants and made up a small portion of Barkhouse’s business, in part so that Vera Flora Farm would always have enough flowers for events. With no events to worry about, Barkhouse expanded the CSA to 50 participants this year, and the program quickly sold out.
“CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and that is absolutely what happened for me this spring,” Barkhouse says. “Yes, flowers do bring joy which is especially needed right now, but I also had a lot of people purchase a CSA share and tell me it's because they wanted to support my business. The community is choosing who they want to support right now by voting with their dollar and it is so encouraging to see so many small, local producers being supported.”
Now, Barkhouse plans to make the CSA a prominent part of her business in the future, even as events return.
“My hope is I can maintain those 50 members and maybe even grow this program next year,” Barkhouse said.
By expanding the CSA, Barkhouse has made up roughly one-third of the revenue that she lost from canceled weddings. And yet, since weddings account for about 60% of the sales that Vera Flora Farm does, she’s preparing for revenue to be significantly reduced.
“It’s going to be down still, quite a bit,” Barkhouse said.
The pandemic will affect her next year as well since she’ll be rescheduling bookings from 2020, rather than connecting with new customers in 2021. And yet the idea of building the CSA — which is less time-intensive than weddings — has some appeal, she says, noting weddings give her a creative platform that she would never want to give up.
“Weddings are really stressful. They take you away from your family on weekends,” Barkhouse says. “There’s definitely part of me that’s thinking what it would be like to make that a smaller part of what we do.”
Because Vera Flora Farm is an agricultural business, it was not eligible for grants through the Small Business Association, Barkhouse said. She was told to look to the United States Department of Agriculture, but “from what I understand, the USDA wasn’t offering anything.” So, Vera Flora Farm was left with no federal support.
“There are a lot of small farms in that same boat,” she says.
A $2,000 grant from the Hannah Grimes Center in Keene made a difference, allowing her to experiment with offering delivery to CSA customers. This year, there’s no additional charge for delivery, since Barkhouse is using the grant to cover fuel and other delivery costs, as well as for buying a decal for her delivery van.
Building the CSA — and planning for how to make it permanent — is helping Barkhouse cope with the uncertainty of the coming year for Vera Flora Farm. As the pandemic unfolded, most people waited until the last minute to postpone their weddings.
“People wanted to hold out hope,” she says.
Even now, she has events booked for the fall. One customer is taking things week-by-week, planning an event for however many people will be allowed once their date rolls around. While that’s understandable, Barkhouse said, it makes it difficult for her to plan.
“One of the big lessons of coronavirus is you have to take things day by day, and not be planning so far into the future,” she says. “But as a business owner, you’re always planning.”
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