Animal Science (Livestock/Dairy)
Black Willow Pond Farm
When a customer places an order to Black Willow Pond Farm, a noise pings (‘cha chings’) on Carrie Edsall’s phone.
It is a standard alert like the one you can choose to get when you send an email or receive a text. Before she has a chance to sit down and make a more detailed financial assessment, it is the first gauge Edsall has to the success of that day’s business.
The noise started last spring when Black Willow Pond Farm began shipping orders, in addition to selling products at local farmers’ markets in and around the Mohawk Valley and Catskills. Black Willow Pond Farm is a mostly-seasonal operation; it does the majority of its animal growing between the start of daylight saving’s time and Thanksgiving. It fits with Edsall’s SUNY Cobleskill teaching schedule.
June is typically a steady time, at least in a normal year, and it was in June 2019 that the farm started shipping meat. The reality is that customers will still be customers whether or not they actually see the family in person at the weekend market. They will still get their chicken, lamb, pork and veal chops, eggs, and ground beef one way or another. That is the important thing.
Business was solid through the fall and winter. The family sells year-round at the Cooperstown Farmers’ Market, and its on-farm store. Joining the Delhi Farmers’ Market – a summer market where the family was able to meet new customers and make connections – was a boon to business. The farm also continued to sell to a handful of restaurants from Schoharie County to New York City.
A gradual increase in sales made it a good winter. Her school commitments limited Edsall to shipping only on Mondays, but things were on track heading into the spring.
“I Didn’t Have Any Idea What was Going On”
Carrie Edsall’s phone began blowing up in March. It was that sound again, except now it was ch-chinging every few seconds.
It wasn’t due to the public adopting a sudden taste for locally-sourced food and food products. That fad may have contributed to Black Willow Pond Farm’s gradual increase in sales in the previous year – but it was no explanation for what was happening now.
In a two week period from the end of February to mid-March, Black Willow Pond Farm sold out of all of its poultry. There is usually some crossover between the fall-born chickens and those the farm begins raising in March. Not this year. The amount of ground beef and lamb Edsall was shipping was unprecedented. The farm sold out of rabbit. Eggs have become a hot weekly commodity.
It got to the point that the family started making twice-weekly trips to Utica or Schenectady to pick up enough dry ice to make it through even a day or two worth of shipments.
Those trips continue, just as customers continue to place orders from four time zones.
“Almost as soon as the (COVID-19) situation began to turn is when things started turning for us,” says Edsall. “I would hear my phone again and again and think something was broken and just laugh. I didn’t have any idea what was going on. We went from feeling like we were doing pretty well to out of control basically overnight. We would see orders from certain places and just say ‘really?’”
Orders have been flooding in from California, Colorado, Texas, Kansas, and New England. First time customers are becoming return customers, which is fantastic for those seeking cuts of pork and veal. That is what Black Willow Pond Farm can offer right now. The lamb and hams? All sold for Easter.
The Great Box Builders
As a farmer and an educator, a parent and so many other things, you wouldn’t fault Edsall for making the odd excuse – like for not being able to grant an interview, which she handled no problem. You could understand how one part of her life might overlap with another.
“I try to wear very distinctive hats, but students know what I do,” says Edsall. Especially right now I know that they’re looking at what I’m doing and seeing how they might be able to apply it. They see the marketing, the adaptability, the juggling… All of that is real, and I’ve been doing it for years even though it is at an extreme right now.”
She says the dry ice is a new wrinkle.
One of the things that makes this story such a well-rounded positive is that it is relatable. Students and farmers can appreciate Edsall’s situation because, while it is a Black Willow Pond Farm story, it is also an industry story, a teaching and learning story, and a story of resilience.
Edsall has two boys, who she has nicknamed “The Great Box Builders.” The farm sources environmentally friendly boxes that provide excellent insulation for shipping the meat. The boys also happen to find themselves doing a lot more packing, labelling, and helping mom inventory meat cuts on spreadsheets. It makes for some very practical math lessons.
The boys’ main adjustments as members of this family farming community have been to minimize fights over the computer during their homeschooling assignments and Edsall’s teaching demands.
A New Normal
Part of Edsall’s ability to adapt to the current climate has been her ability to understand what it means for the farm right now, and in the times to come. It would be easy to take on 300 more hens. It just wouldn’t be practical.
“We have always been a little bit different – we’ve always kind of been outside the box in our thinking,” says Edsall. She and Black Willow Pond Farm have been part of the community since 2010. “We work closely with our customers because it is important to us that they understand what we are seeing. They know how much planning goes into this, and that while we want to respond to them, we can’t afford to be reactive in the wrong ways.”
For now, the plan is to up numbers of meat chickens and pigs. The family dairy farm has also been cross-breeding dairy cattle with angus to increase more direct marketing. Edsall partners with her family’s dairy farm for veal and ground beef, rather than auctioning off dairy animals for almost nothing at local sale barns. Black Willow Pond Farm is now sourcing the quality veal customers have been enjoying from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
“We really do appreciate the local/seasonal food awakening people seem to be having. The question for us is ‘will this last?’ The chicken and ground beef situation has been huge for us, with people not wanting to go to the grocery store, or being able to get certain things once they’re in the grocery store. We are on our phones more [for social media] because customers are on their phones more, shopping and placing orders.”
This has all been an introduction to a different type of entrepreneurship. The packaging, labeling, shipping and, obviously, dry ice have all been new materialistic additions to routine.
“As farmers I think we are able to see the big picture. With all these new customers, they might not see the big picture – all the steps that go into this type of work.”
Edsall, ever the farmer, says she really wants to get back to grazing. That would mean warmer weather and green grass. In the meantime, she accepts and understands reality, and all the ups and downs it brings with it.