Being creative with marketing has become essential for some ag-related businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes that means building or expanding alliances with others.
To maintain some normalcy and to support local agriculture, Virtue Cider of Fennville is offering CCSA boxes — cider- and community-supported agriculture boxes — for local pickup. The boxes are filled with their ciders and goods from local growers.
“We wanted to continue serving our guests who can’t be guests right now,” says Johanna Bystrom, consumer experience manager at Virtue Cider.
The CCSA boxes, which became available April 3 for weekly curbside pickup, include a wide variety of staples. Some already were offered inside the Virtue Cider taproom, while others were added after the pandemic to broaden customer options.
Virtue Cider, founded by Gregory Hall, is accessing locally produced foods using West Michigan Farmlink, which is an online marketplace where local buyers can purchase local foods from western Michigan farmers. Before the pandemic, Farmlink served many restaurants in sourcing and supplying locally grown food.
Bystrom says Virtue Cider went through the list of farmers connected with Farmlink. “Some of them we already had relationships with,” says Bystrom, who adds that some deliver directly to the taproom at the farm, while others are bulked together and delivered by Farmlink.
“We have been thinking of ways to help each other stay resilient and safe,” Bystrom says. “We continue to support local farms, and we want to make it easy for those who live in Fennville to get it. We are proud to provide a pickup point for local groceries and goods that maintains a source of community and supports the local economy.”
The offering includes about a week’s worth of groceries and pantry staples for two to four people. The offerings included in each box adapt with the seasons and farm inventories. In addition to Virtue Cider, items and local purveyors included in the basic CCSA box include:
- coffee from Uncommon Coffee Roasters in Saugatuck
- eggs from Creswick Farms in Ravenna
- greens from Mud Lake Farm in Hudsonville
- apples from Wells Orchard in Grand Rapids
- milk and butter from Kalona Creamery in Iowa
- potatoes, yellow onions and carrots from Crisp Country Acre in Holland
- celery root from Victory Farms in Hudsonville
- pickles from Marcia’s Munchies in Inkster
- cheese from Evergreen Lane Creamery in Fennville
- bread from Field and Fire in Grand Rapids
- ramp from Mycophiles Garden in Grand Rapids
CCSA box options also include a basic share plus protein, sourced from Louise Earl Butcher in Grand Rapids and LaQuerica in Iowa, as well as gluten-free and vegan share options.
Boxes are available to customers 21 or older who order online at vrtu.us/CCSAboxes. Curbside pickup originally was offered Fridays and Saturdays, but because of its popularity, it is now available seven days a week.
Visit vrtu.us/curbside-cider-pickup for more details.
Supporting local agriculture
Virtue Cider is a unique 48-acre farm and value-added business with three cider houses for production and a taproom that allows visitors (prior to COVID-19) to pair ciders with local cheeses, grilled cheese sandwiches, seasoned pickles and more. It also offers live music, outdoor dining and trails for hiking.
More than 20 ciders are available, depending on the season, with six core brands. The smaller batches are only available on the farm, but packaged ciders are available for direct shipping to 35 states.
The CCSA boxes stay true to the business core of buying local and supporting local farmers. The farm includes 5 acres of semi-dwarf heirloom fruit. Other apples are sourced from farmers within a 200-mile radius. One of the farm’s offerings is a land-share initiative called “Grow Your Farmer,” which allows first-generation farmers access to a quarter-acre of property for small-scale endeavors.
Bystrom was the first tenant farmer, bringing her Icelandic sheep with her to work, so to speak. Previously, she had been moving them from parcel to parcel of rented land. Now, they still move, but from pasture to pasture within the farm. The agreement benefits both parties — Bystrom can operate without land fees, while sheep help mow grasslands at Virtue Cider.
The farm is verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. It also is certified as a colossal-sized Monarch Waystation, meaning it has 5,000-plus square feet of devoted pollinator habitat. Guests can explore and learn about the methods of biodiversity in farming.
To maintain and enhance pollinator habitat, the farm has added Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, traditional English pigs of the orchard, to help spread the seed from the pollinator varieties through the shaking of seed pods as they move about on pasture, and through the berries they eat and reseed as fertilizer.
With the pollinator habitat, it made perfect sense to partner last year with another tenant, beekeeper Shaana Way, to help her grow and further establish her business, Grassroots Honey Co. She focuses on urban bee rescue and queen bee breeding and plans to add more to the three hives currently on-site.
“Our farm focus is that of giving back to our local environment and young farm economy,” Bystrom explains.
Virtue Cider was founded by Hall in 2011 after working 20 years as head brewmaster for his father, John, who founded Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago.
Prior to Virtue Cider, Hall went on a pilgrimage through England and France studying cider making. He brought that innovation and skill set back to Michigan, where he had vacationed before and had fallen in love with the countryside.
“He also noted that the area was a great cider-making region, with 40 inches of rainfall a year to support great fruit productivity,” Bystrom says. “And the lakeshore climate.”
All the ciders, she says, are made without adding any additional sugar and use French oak and bourbon barrels for cider aging.
“Our cider makers, who are trained in the craft, work with the fruit and yeast to produce more of a wine-quality type of cider,” she explains.