Innovating New Sales Models to Meet New Demands



By Sara Nicholas, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture

For farmers Jeff Frank and Kristin Illick of Liberty Gardens in Coopersburg, PA, the pandemic forced them to rethink their already successful business as a wholesaler of salad greens and specialty vegetables to New York City restaurants. Once the pandemic hit, virtually every customer they had shut down overnight. Within just two months, they pivoted their business to an entirely different sales model—selling direct to local consumers in their Lehigh Valley region of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Jeff explains that the couple had been in business for 20 years, and had created a niche market for New York City restaurants where chefs sought unique and hard-to-get produce for their ever-changing menus. “In March, we made our last visit to New York, then it all closed at once. We knew it was coming, but not how serious it was,” recalled Jeff.

With no customers, no sales, and continuing costs to stay in business, the couple had to come up with a new way of operating their business. “At that point we had no Plan B,” he notes. They started to sketch out different scenarios, and kept coming back to the idea of selling their products online to local customers, something they had always wanted to do. In order to do this, they had to develop and set up a website, and they needed to diversify their product line beyond early-season salad greens.

They received operating loans through Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Program, which were critical in buying them time to adjust and create a new business model while staying afloat. Pennsylvania-based farmer support organization Pasa Sustainable Agriculture has developed an online marketplace to connect growers like Jeff and Kristin to buyers and processors so each individual farm doesn’t need to duplicate efforts. This effort is supported by Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Department’s PA Preferred marketing program. Concerned by reports that most of the PPP and EIDL funding, at least at first, was monopolized by large producers, Frank and Illick recommend that more be done at the state and federal level for small producers like them. 

Jeff and Karen used the program Square to develop an online store, and started talking to other nearby producers to invite them to use their site - and to be able to offer more diversified products. “Sales have been through the roof,” reports Karen, although the price they get for produce now is about 25% less than what they got from New York City restaurants. “We’re working harder, for less, but we’re happier,” reports Jeff. “We have to remember to be patient, and to find new efficiencies. Our earlier model took 20 years to create and perfect,” he added. They also report that the farmer network in the Lehigh Valley was always there, but not as close or connected as it has become since the onset of the pandemic. 

Learn more about Paycheck Protection Program

Learn more about Economic Injury Disaster Loans

Learn more about PA Preferred

Read more in How State and Federal Programs Support Farmers, Fishermen, Food Entrepreneurs and Consumers in the Northeast