The Paper. spoke with the owners of Corrales-based Silver Leaf Farms, brothers Aaron and Elan Silverblatt-Buser, about how they have managed to grow and innovate in their organic farming business despite—and because of—COVID restrictions.
The Paper.: How long into the pandemic was it when you realized you were going to need to radically change up some aspects of your operations? What tactics have you employed?
Elan: Well, it really hit us by mid-March, when the virus first started to really disrupt things here. The growers’ markets were just getting started, and the local community of organic farmers were all asking the question, ‘What’s gonna happen?’ It became evident early on that we would need to plan for a very different growing season, at least retail-wise. By the end of March, we decided to provide a new service. You know, let’s just do something for those who want to be completely safe and don’t even want to risk grocery stores or markets. We fell back on our community and decided to build together. The result of this network is The Farm Stand at Milagro Vineyards. Our neighbors at Milagro have such a beautiful space that happens to be perfect for what we were envisioning. With a bit of planning, we were able to offer a preorder curbside pick-up situation where customers can buy our produce without putting themselves at risk. This online model gave us a foundation. Looking back, we were lucky that we had some insulation, but we honestly did build the parachute as we were falling. Over these months since the pandemic became a reality, we have tweaked The Farm Stand to offer a wider range of local produce and artisanal products.
What other local businesses have you collaborated with in this effort?
Elan: Once shutdowns hit us here in New Mexico, it became clear that friends of ours in the food world would be hit hard. We reached out to a handful of people, like, ‘So, we created this platform.’ Eventually people reached out to us, too. We started working with both Bosque Baking Co. and Ihatov early on. We carry products from The Grove Market and Café, which has been an interesting switch-up. Before the pandemic we provided them with produce. With restaurants shut for a time, we were selling their hummus and their baba ghanoush—made out of our eggplants. We also, of course, have a wide selection of estate-grown or -bottled wines from Milagro Vineyards. It just goes back to customers who still wanted to shop and support local businesses but couldn’t access our goods or were not willing to risk their health to do so. Oh, and we are also offering some local and regional cheeses, as well as imported goods from a friend of ours who worked almost exclusively with restaurants. Literally overnight the majority of his business disappeared. It made sense to try to figure out how to get him involved.
Have there been any silver linings in dealing with changes brought on by this pandemic?
Aaron: The support from old customers has been a huge plus during all of this. It feels good to see people we know from the farmers market that live in Albuquerque driving out to see us in Corrales. We are there for them with the same quality organic produce that they’ve gotten to know us for, and they are supporting us and allowing us to keep thriving. It feels lucky to have fostered community through the business.
Have your choices about what to plant changed this season because of the new tactics that you are employing?
Aaron: Much of what we planned for this season was already in the works.There wasn’t a ton that really could be changed once COVID took hold. While our operations are minuscule compared to big name-brand operations, we are at the level where what is to be grown has to be planned months ahead. That said, we have been able to expand to meet new demands. For example, we have started offering a much wider array of starts this year. People were really excited to purchase the varietals that we grow as stabilized starts and to bring them to fruition in their own gardens. We had also never offered our own processed products before. Selling our own cucumbers in pickled form was a fun process and one that we plan to keep up with.
As organic growers that handle a lot of weight, do you ever have a surplus that cannot be sold? Have you all been able to donate any of this during the pandemic to those who are in need?
Elan: Part of organic growing is dealing with imperfections. Our work with local food pantries has actually slowed down this year, but we are still finding ways to keep our excess produce from going to waste. Part of this is more direct donations. Through one of our employees, we have been donating to a local group called Food is Free Albuquerque that does great work across the city. While we can’t sell produce that doesn’t meet our standards, we try to only toss the stuff that is really not fit for consumption.
Is there anything that you’re excited for as you wrap up this harvest season and start preparing for winter?
Aaron: I mean, physically I think we are ready for the end of harvest. Winter is like reflection time for us. A time to plan for how to better deal with pests, weather and our planting schedule. Not that we don’t have to worry about COVID as well. But to be honest, overcoming these more tangible problems is good for our mental health.
Elan: And I’m also looking forward to this year’s brassica harvest, which should be amazing and will be starting as temperatures cool.
Sorry, what was the term you just used? Brassica?
Aaron: Brassica is a genus. Kind of like nightshades. All manner of tasty vegetables that tend to be harvested after temperatures have dropped fall under this category. Think mustard greens, turnips, kohlrabi, cabbage, collards, brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower and broccoli.
You can order online and pick up orders from the safety of your car at MilagroFarmStand.com, which will be open until at least Thanksgiving and quite possibly well into the future.