Farmers Adapt to Survive During the Pandemic

NBC 7 Responds' Consumer Bob looked at how some farmers are adapting now that some of their biggest customers have stopped ordering

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The coronavirus pandemic has changed how San Diegans shop, order food and even see friends and family, so farmers are faced with finding new ways to sell their produce, even as restaurants stop placing orders.

Frank Hilliker is an egg farmer in Lakeside. His chickens lay about 20,000 eggs a day, and most of them were bought by restaurants, before COVID-19 hit. When those businesses were hit with social-distancing restrictions, 60 percent of his sales dried up.

"We worked hard on retail, and thank god there was enough retail demand to buy up the eggs we had," Hilliker told NBC 7.

Frank Hilliker stands in a building on his egg farm, surrounded by chickens. Image: Bob Hansen

Hilliker's family has owned the farm since the 1940s and even runs a small store on the property. The pandemic forced the store to close its doors, so Hilliker opened an egg stand on the side of the road.

"You don't even have to get out of your car," said Hilliker. "We'll put them in your trunk, we'll put them in your back seat, we'll do whatever you need and try to make it as easy as possible."

Hilliker is one of the thousands of farmers that make up San Diego's thriving agriculture industry. According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau, the county has more small farms than any other in the United States and has more than 250,000 acres of farmland.

Egg farmers like Hilliker aren't the only ones who have had to try to find new ways to sell their products. Hannah Gbeh is the executive director of the farm bureau and said some of the hardest hit farms grow strawberries, blueberries and flowers.

Hilliker said that, as restaurants opened to sell take-out, about 20 percent of his sales returned. He hopes that all of his customers are able to reopen their restaurants soon and get back to work.

"There's restaurants out there that have been doing business with us since my grandfather and grandmother started the farm," Hilliker said.

For now, Hilliker will continue to sell his eggs out of his roadside stand.

"[That will be until] things settle down and we can get rid of all the 6-foot marks, and we can start hugging each other," said Hilliker. "It'll be a drive-thru until then."

If you want to support local farms, the San Diego County Farm Bureau has put together a list of places that are selling directly to consumers.

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