It was a Friday afternoon when Tou Lee from Lee’s One Fortune Farm found out that the Saturday market had been cancelled because of the COVID-19 restrictions placed on public gatherings that day.
All spring, Tou and his wife and farming partner Chue Lee grew vegetables like bok choy and broccoli raab to get ready for the market. ”We were already packed up,” Tou says. “The only thing we hadn’t done was actually throw it on the truck.”
From cilantro to spinach, almost all of the produce they were going to take to market was perishable. “Once you pick it, that’s it,” Chue says.
Chue and Tou knew that they needed to get their vegetables into the hands of customers right away. Last year they sold produce and eggs at seven farmers markets in the region. They were planning to sell at six markets this year, but suddenly they needed a new business plan.
Chue and Tou employ many people in the Hmong community in Western North Carolina, including family members who grow some of the produce the Lees sell at markets. Tou says some of their family felt scared when they heard that the indoor farmers market was canceled.
“All this stuff that they have grown all winter, they were very much afraid that they wouldn’t have an avenue to sell it,” Tou says. “Our cousin, she was just lamenting about having to mow it all down or cut it all down to feed it to the animals. That was the thought of several of them, and I told them, just hang on, let’s see what we can do.”
Chue and Tou reached out to their regular customers to find out what they needed and how to get it to them. “By the time we posted on social media, we got a lot of responses and a lot of people were asking to see if we can deliver.”
Lee’s One Fortune Farm is located in Marion, about 40 minutes away from their Asheville-area customers, but delivery seemed like the best option. They dropped off produce at the homes of their regular customers, but still had some vegetables left over.
“At the same time, we decided that we’re going to carry extra stuff onboard the truck. If they know someone that needs something or know someone else that also shops with us and wants to get something, they can get a hold of us. They can meet us on the route; all the way from Black Mountain, Swannanoa, down to Asheville and all the way back. It worked out. A lot of people come out,” Tou says.
Now there is a new outdoor farmers market at A-B Tech Community College on Saturdays and outdoor weekday markets are a possibility. But knowing that farmers markets are in flux has made Chue and Tou rethink their business model.
“We will sell at any place that still has a farmers market, and we also will do delivery to people that are running out of produce,” Tou says. “We’re having a large pre-order. We let them select whatever produce that they want from us and we pack it in a box and deliver it to them.
Chue and Tou are grateful to their customers, who have been reaching out to them during this time.
“Lots of people are emailing and writing to us in texts, and are very appreciative. Likewise, I told them, it’s a mutual thing because they’re very happy to have us and we’re also very happy to have them,” Tou says.
“We’re able to move all our produce from our many cousins, aunts and uncles. So we’re pretty much the main seller for the Lees now,” Chue says.
Tou and Chue are optimistic that people will come together to support farmers, and that there’s enough local food to support the community.
“I can say that us and all the farmers in the local area, we can feed Western North Carolina,” Tou says.
“We’ll just have to do what we do best and try to feed the community at this time of crisis,” Chue says.
In the coming weeks, we’ll talk to more farmers who are adapting their business models to provide the community with farm-fresh food. Learn about Lee’s One Fortune Farm and hundreds of other farms in the region in ASAP’s online local food guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: April 6, 2020