Written by Erin Kohn, sophomore student at North Carolina State University
Adapting to an unprecedented summer
The summer of 2020 was a summer of unprecedented occurrences that demanded tremendous flexibility from all people and organizations. When I applied for a Rural Works! internship with People-First Tourism Inc. to support their Provisions business unit (part of NC State Extension’s Vacationer Supported Agriculture project) the goal of this internship was to increase the visibility of participating farmers and facilitate the supply chain of produce to be sold to vacationers. When I applied and interviewed, I envisioned myself spending long weekends on various farms, enjoying late-night conversations with farmers, interacting with vacationers in the area, and taking pictures of the packaging and delivery process for public relations efforts. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to pursue my internship goals completely online.
March 17th marked the beginning of quarantine in North Carolina with the closure of restaurants for dine in. Many other nonessential businesses closed at that time, and even the stores that remained open had very limited hours. At that point, P1t Inc. and their NC State Extension collaborators were worried about the impact of the quarantine on the beach vacation season; however, farmers were eager to sell produce, and there were some predictions that many people might stay in beach vacation rentals as a way to escape the prolonged quarantine in their homes (while maintaining social distancing). Therefore P1t Inc. and NC State Extension decided to move forward with the project and I was offered the internship knowing that there was a lot of uncertainty about the kind of work I would need to do in support of the project.
During May, with everyone in quarantine before the summer even started and no prediction of when people would leave their homes, the produce bag sales were somewhat discouraging. Reports show that in North Carolina farm sales fell by 76% and by mid summer many farmers feared that they would be “out of business if COVID-19’s effects last the whole summer” (McReynolds, 2020). Although our sales were initially modest, we were selling bags for delivery later in the summer, and we were making regular payments to farmers so we decided it was crucial to press on with our efforts to market the produce bags and fine tune operations (ie. sourcing, aggregating, packaging, delivering).
Our team knew that we needed to develop operational practices that minimize exposure to the COVID-19 virus among the farmers, aggregators and vacationers. Therefore, we purchased personal protective equipment for the aggregators and we coordinated training for COVID-19 food handling procedures in collaboration with county Extension agents.
Our team eliminated all fieldwork and face-to-face project meetings in order to protect ourselves and others from virus transmission. As a result, my work was focused on engaging with farmers and small business partners at the various destinations using email and phone. My immersion to the online world began with negotiating partnerships with local businesses to serve as pickup locations. With no direct revenue incentive for small destination businesses to partner with us it was crucial for me to articulate our dedication to supporting local communities and help them understand that our program would attract positive attention to their businesses. Upon deciding on a location, there were other things to consider. They had to have proper traffic flow and parking. But more importantly, they had to be structured in a way that allowed convenient contactless outdoor pickup due to COVID-19 guidelines. However, since I had not personally traveled to all these places, Google Maps was the only real tour guide I had. Location scouting was a lot like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” so finding the one pickup location that was just right for each destination was very complicated. While many of my emails and phone calls were never answered, I did make connections with several people and businesses that showed a selfless desire to support local farmers. This experience helped me understand that the success of a socio-entrepreneurial project like ours requires that each part of the process be carefully researched, orchestrated and monitored.
As I explained, this project results from a collaboration between P1t Inc. and NC State Extension; additionally, we collaborate with dozens of vacation realties, farmers, and community organizations. Therefore, communication was a key factor in our work. We could not have face to face meetings, so I devoted a significant amount of time meeting with the P1t Inc. and NC State Extension teams via Zoom, and I joined Zoom meetings with key community partners.
A spike in sales was followed by trouble
Phase 2 of reopening happened on May 22, but people still restricted their travels until well into June. Our sales numbers were still looking low by mid-June, but towards the end of the month, sales skyrocketed. People were excited to be able to travel without having to go to the grocery store in an unfamiliar location during the pandemic. By the end of summer, 2020 total bag sales ultimately surpassed 2019 figures despite earlier projections.
But as virus cases continued to spike and some vacationers canceled their trips, we faced requests for refunds. Additionally, the weather went from extreme rain to extreme heat and the farmers suffered losses to crops during this already chaotic season. Brunswick County farmers were hit the hardest by this setback and after struggling to source enough produce from participating farmers, the decision was made to reduce the number of bags available for sale each week in August. Then in August, hurricane Isaias hit the North Carolina Coast closing some beach destinations and creating additional damage to participating farms. Refunds and replacement of bags caused costs to the farmers, and their reduced productivity deprived them of maximizing revenue, so during the last weeks of the season I felt that the stakes were higher than ever. Our team had several emergency meetings carefully crafting the language we’d use with vacationers to manage their expectations on behalf of the welfare of the small farmers we serve. I was responsible for a large amount of customer service interactions with vacationers and in retrospect I feel tremendously gratified for the effort we put into customer communications. Many vacationers were not able to enjoy their bags due to illness, travel constraints, or the weather, in which cases the bags were donated to local families in need. I was responsible for communicating this company/project policy, and I was really pleased to observe that very few vacationers requested a refund from the farmers. Perhaps this pandemic has made us all a little more altruistic.
This experience makes me curious to forge future collaborations with people that are different from me and who might have skills and worldviews complementary to mine.ERIN KOHN, NC STATE SOPHOMORE
My internship takeaways
As the summer season ends, our team has started looking towards improvements for next year. This blog post is partial evidence of my effort to reflect upon my summer internship and identify takeaways that will propel me through my academic and professional journey. I learned a lot about local food systems, agribusiness, tourism, marketing, web platform management, customer relations, etc. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, I gained a broader understanding of the world. Through this internship I met people from extremely different backgrounds from each other and from me, and we all worked together towards a shared goal (supporting small farmers). This experience makes me curious to forge future collaborations with people that are different from me and who might have skills and worldviews complementary to mine.
This summer I also was fortunate to experience first hand the power that comes from working in a strong team that is devoted to making a positive difference in the world and is also devoted to enhancing each other’s happiness. The “we are all in this together” mentality really made itself prevalent this summer. Even though we were all experiencing a lot of emotional stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we interacted solely over Zoom, we were very supportive of each other and we still relied on each team member’s unique skills and experience to make crucial adjustments to operations that contributed to the success of this complex project even in face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. I am super thankful to everyone I collaborated with for being great mentors and giving me the opportunity to be a part of an organization that genuinely cares about equitable economic development and the sustainability of rural communities.
McReynolds R. 2020 Jun 23. Sales fell 76% for local farms due to COVID-19. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association; [accessed 2020 Aug 5]. https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org
This post was originally published in the People-First Tourism Lab Blog.