Theodora Farms is kicking off its inaugural season as we write this, in the strange reality that is Covid-19 Spring 2020. And while Theodora Farms may be the fresh new farm in Godfrey, Illinois, their Farm Manager Kris Larson is celebrating his sixteenth year farming. He got his start in agriculture in college in Northern California and spent time volunteering at Redwood Roots Farm near Arcadia, CA before moving to Horton Road Organics in Oregon, where he met his wife Stacy.
Kris and Stacy moved across the country together in 2004 and worked at several farms in Massachusetts before relocating to Community Supported Garden at La Vista (a 4-acre CSA) in Goodfield, Illinois in 2006. In 2010, the two started Riverbend Roots Farm in Alton, IL. The farm had a good run, but had to close down in 2017 because they “lacked tenure on the land,” and could only acquire their lease one year at a time which was restrictive, “preventing them from expanding infrastructure” and the like.
After Riverbend Roots Farm closed down, Kris and Stacy “spent a few years regrouping,” meanwhile connecting with lots of people in their local community who “emerged to champion farms.” Kris describes how they all found each other and located a new, much bigger property. The land was secured and Theodora Farms was born as a new collective operation. Kris and the team spent the past year amending the fields, installing greenhouses and getting the emerging farm prepped and ready to open their farm store, which is conveniently located on a highly trafficked road.
A major part of the farm preparation involved acquiring a cooler in which to store Theodora Farms’ fresh produce, including about fifty different types of popular vegetables, from beets and carrots to greens and tomatoes.
“We can’t do anything without the cooler,” Kris says. “We couldn’t harvest without it. Veggies require cooling to maintain quality.”
Theodora Farms’ main use for their cooler, which they keep at 35 degrees, is to remove the field heat from the produce overnight, after harvesting and before distributing. Typically, they keep their crops in the cooler for 7-10 days when harvesting in bulk or all at once (for example, with beets or carrots).
“We had a CoolBot back at Riverbend Roots Farm that worked great, which is how we gravitated back to that direction. We had built a customized cooler in our garage with the A/C unit. It was super simple. We liked that we never had to worry about it.”
Theodora Farms wasn’t necessarily planning to go the CoolBot route, but when they realized that CoolBot offered turnkey walk in coolers they were intrigued. Not only was CoolBot more cost efficient than other options they had explored, but the adaptability really appealed to the collective farm owners. Plus Kris and Stacy could vouch for how reliable the product was. And having the unit custom built to best fit and maximize their space was priceless.
Theodora Farms had some initial space constraints for their cooler location, wanting to configure its orientation conveniently between the farm store and the wash area. “Stacy called CoolBot to discuss our design concept. We were given some options that would fit the site, which proved to be better than the other options we’d explored. In the end, we were able to customize exactly where the door went and it fits perfectly into our space.”
Kirk described how daunting his past experiences were with having to call an HVAC technician to come out and fix previous refrigerators he’d used at other farms. After calculating the cost of having to potentially fix or replace fridge parts (plus paying for labor) versus having to simply replace an A/C unit, Kris was confident that CoolBot was the right choice.
So how does one go about opening a brand new farm during a global pandemic? A virtual ribbon cutting? A live-streamed maiden voyage?
Kris admits that “building a brand from scratch” during this all too vivid episode of the Twilight Zone that we’re currently living through will be challenging. “When you’re a new business, you need to have contact. People need to see your produce and see you and establish those relationships.”
Fortunately the demands for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm fresh produce delivery during this pandemic is arguably higher than ever. “We’re doing lots of home deliveries, which involves packing up boxes and leaving them in the cooler overnight for our drivers to come pick up in the morning,” Kris explains. “We’re fully committed to home deliveries and pick ups at the farm, which we were planning to do regardless. We converted our CSA Farmers Choice into a customized retail type thing so that people can choose exactly what they want each week. We’re also offering home delivery to the entire metropolitan area (we’re located right outside St. Louis).”
Additionally, Kris tells us how Theodora Farms has partnered with a local senior center, which already offers Meals On Wheels and has the capabilities to include fresh produce delivery straight from the farm, emphasizing contactless deliveries. The farm is raising their standards to keep people safe, while also implementing an online ordering system for produce.
“One unique thing about Theodora Farms is its location. We’re right in town, making us a lot more accessible than most farms. We definitely hope that we can be more within reach because of our geographic location, seeing a lot more visitors and engagement with the local community as years go on,” says Kris.
Theodora Farms hopes to emphasize a lot of community collaborations and plans to serve the needs of its communities in multiple ways. “Our ultimate goal is to be working with existing organizations to make sure local food is farm fresh, affordable and organic for local and surrounding communities, which we’ve already begun to do,” Kris explains.
“We plan to extensively expand compared to what we’re starting with currently,” he says. “The cooler we just purchased will ultimately be converted into a cool room that we maintain at 55 degrees, and we’ll need a much larger cooler at some point down the road.”
The original approach for opening the farm shifted to doing mostly direct sales to consumers from the farm, instead of pursuing the restaurant market, which “has been indefinitely put on hold for now.” While restaurants are still operating with greatly reduced volume, Kris and his staff “didn’t want to exert ourselves into an existing market without serving them the best way we could.” And while in-person farmers’ markets have also been disrupted, Theodora Farms has plans to attempt a drive-through version of a farmers’ market, “however with modest expectations,” according to Kris.
Despite the general population sharing feelings of loneliness, confusion and anxiety right now, one thing we can be sure of is that organic, locally grown farm fresh produce brings joy and good health. In uncertain times where the grocery store shelves are wiped out of staples like canned tomatoes and toilet paper, it’s refreshing to know exactly where your food is coming from. It’s confidence-inspiring to know that Theodora Farms’ produce is lovingly hand planted in natural, nutrient rich soil and then harvested for maximum freshness. This farm is committed to providing a wide variety of high quality vegetables, herbs, flowers and annual fruits to its surrounding community. All communities should be so lucky to have such accessible and affordable fresh produce within reach… and available for delivery!