Think of him like an organic crops curator. He travels above and through Georgia’s Black Belt Region, relationship-building and collecting the best produce to sell for farmers at Atlanta pop-up markets. “I want to make sure small, organic farmers are able to grow their markets,” said Alex Little, 33, of Community Herd LLC in Atlanta. He drives as far down as Sparta and Fort Valley to identify fruits, veggies and other organic goods of urban demand. Ever since global pandemic COVID-19 has interrupted the traditional food supply chain, the organic gardener has been on a mission to help Georgia families quickly access healthy produce grown by farmers of the Black Belt.
After making countryside connections, Little heads back into the city limit to help bag and box alongside Patchwork City Farms owner and also organic farmer Jamila Norman. Their direct marketing approach works because consumers want nothing but a nutritious fix during these disease-ridden times. On select Fridays off Oakland City’s Richland Road, customers “pop-up” for curbside service at Patchwork from 2 to 5 p.m. No crowds. Just healthy produce and fresh air. When customers arrive, the two are mask and glove ready.
“It’s interesting,” said Norman, 41. “COVID-19 has really helped business by increasing our online sales and creating a new type of synergy among farmers. We’re getting between 50 to 60 pre-orders a week.”
Norman generated so much new business, she needed more help. Little became the perfect partner farmer. They both wanted to benefit small farmers and anxious communities. Patchwork alternates pop-up locations. One Friday it’s open to the westside. The other in Collegetown with farm Truly Living Well. Saturdays it’s in midtown. The independent organic farm operates its pop-up farmers markets from an online, pre-ordering system. Once a site purchase is made, the customer’s bag or box fills and is ready for pick up at Patchwork’s designated locations within a specific timeframe.
“This system is working so well because customers know their food isn’t going through so many hands before it gets to their table,” said Norman.
Little and Norman pull in products from Black farmers of South Georgia as much as possible. The goal: Ensure community members have all the necessities to make a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner without traveling the city in search of missing ingredients. Veggie boxes include items like carrots, garlic, radishes, hearty greens, turnips, salad mix, green onions and herbs. Add-ons from area farmers range from eggs and mushrooms to raw honey and strawberries. “Profits are definitely up because of the pandemic,” said Little. People are eating more natural and taking their health way more seriously, Little stressed. Pop-up farmers markets are designed for producers to sell directly to customers through a temporary, mobile and simple transaction. A trade market of sorts. And one of the oldest curbside strategies to doing business for farming families of the Black Belt.
But this idea really isn’t anything new to Deep South communities. The popular business model in urban areas has been a way of life for rural farmers and gardeners, especially throughout the 20th century. Once Black farmers shifted from sharecroppers to more independent farming roles, small-town vegetable stands, fruit-filled pickups and four-way corner lots all served as “pop-up” places to purchase some of the South’s most sought-after harvest.
The difference today: Little and the farms he collaborates with have online ordering as their digital advantage.
The transaction starts before customers leave home and completes a few minutes after arriving to their destination. Now, pop-ups pepper Atlanta. In addition to Patchwork’s pickup points, public transit system MARTA holds pop-up farm stands at five of its stations: Five Points, West Bankhead, West End, College Park and H.E. Holmes. Known as the “Fresh MARTA Market,” this pop-up operation varies in days and times it sells fresh produce in partnership with Organix Matters, Atlanta Community Food Bank and other community farmers markets. Recently, the state endorsed this selling setup, too.
Gary W. Black, Georgia’s ag commissioner, rolled out the Georgia Grown To-Go Program mid-May 2020. Partnering with local governments, the program also connects produce farmers directly to consumers in crowded communities through a series of pop-up markets (click here for locations). The drive-through service primarily takes place in metro Atlanta.
“We are excited to offer this great opportunity to help bridge the gap between consumers in metro areas and our farmers in South Georgia,” said Black in a May 18 Georgia Department of Agriculture press release. “With foodservice channels limited, Georgia Grown To-Go pop-up markets are a great and innovative way to make sure our consumers have access to the Georgia Grown products they crave.”
He went on to say in response to the coronavirus outbreak: “We have enjoyed joining forces with our local government and nonprofit partners in an effort to best serve our communities during this unprecedented time.” This statewide program backs Little’s efforts to bridge urban and rural Black farmers’ access to new markets. Work he’s naturally done for a few years now.
“Pop-up markets are effective,” said Little. “With the way things are, a lot of Black farmers can benefit from this marketing strategy.”
Little’s collaborative efforts extend to the Georgia Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers program, which he chairs. Educating and advocating for the state’s young agriculturalists is another one of his passion projects. “I’m all about pushing policies, outreach and engagement to help farmers,” Little said. “Our farmers need to be heard and supported so they can grow, especially small farmers.”
ONLINE BIZ TIPS FROM AN ORGANIC FARMER
Jamila Norman of Patchwork City Farms is an urban farmer and food activist always rooting for and collaborating with fellow growers. If area organic gardeners and farmers have produce she’s able to add to her popular veggie boxes, she and Little make the partnership happen. Her advice to producers new to online shopping tools that can help increase business sales:
ADD A SHOP TAB TO YOUR SITE OR CONSIDER SOFTWARE PLATFORMS. Restaurants, markets and many other food distribution avenues are still closed during COVID-19. A few direct sales software platforms geared toward online pre-orders include the following: Local Line, Cropolis, Local Orbit, WhatsGood, Open Food Network and Online Farm Markets. “It’s been a blessing,” said Norman. “Having an online shopping option on my site has created guaranteed money-making opportunities.”
USE SOCIAL MEDIA AS AN ADVERTISING AVENUE. Creating a business page, gaining followers and keeping them updated about company developments requires no out-of-pocket costs. It does command time to log on and effectively articulate what you want customers to know and do. “I use social media like Instagram (@patchworkcityfarms) and Facebook all the time to promote our products, prices and pickup locations,” Norman said. “I stay in contact with my followers so they know exactly what to do to get veggie boxes safely.”
COUNT ON YOUR SMARTPHONE TO REACH NEW BUSINESS. With smartphones getting smarter, growers have access to mobile apps to help make marketing products and services easier and look more professional. Check out apps like Canva and Adobe Spark Post for engaging graphic designs and storytelling visuals to help advertise your business offerings. And if that’s too overwhelming, “just text or call family and friends so they know what you have available this week or month,” said Norman. “It’s sometimes just that simple.”
Call Little at 404-430-8821 for weekly pop-up market details and updates.