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Pandemic impacts workload at Taft Farms

HOUSATONIC — For a few minutes every night for the past six weeks, Paul Tawczynski dozes off in the kitchen of the Taft Farms retail store.

He’s awakened intermittently by the sound of his kitchen timer that helps him keep track of the food he’s preparing, such as chicken pot pies, soups and other baked goods the Housatonic-based family farm has to offer.

In light of the global pandemic of coronavirus, the farm’s store hours have remained the same, but the workload for Tawczynski, the farm’s owner and sole chef, has never been higher.

Tawczynski starts his day arriving at the farm store at 7:30 a.m., working there all day until 6:30 p.m. He then goes home to make dinner and put his kids to bed, which he says usually ends up somewhere between 9:30 and 10 p.m.

That’s when Tawczynski returns to the farm’s store and begins his own version of a graveyard shift, cooking up the next day’s grab-and-go orders in a distraction-free environment in the early hours of the morning.

With a turkey in one oven and a roast beef in another on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Tawczynski stacks two milk crates and perches himself between the kitchen appliances, resting his eyes for the half-hour intervals before a timer goes off.

“During the day, it’s so crazy. The phone is ringing off the hook,” he said. “It’s easier for me to cook at night when the phone is not ringing or when vendors are calling. I can accomplish more in the four or five hours I’m awake between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. than I can in the previous 12 hours I was here.”

The farm’s fall harvest took a hit last year when the state’s Department of Transportation recommended the closure of the town-owned Division Street bridge to vehicular traffic, which connects Route 41 and Route 183. The bridge also connects the farm’s retail store to part of the farm’s fields that yield pumpkins and squash.

“As a farm, you count on fall,” Tawczynski said. “You count on harvest season. We plan our whole yearly budget around the fall harvest, and it made it a very challenging winter.”

The situation turned so grave for the family farm during the winter that a lack of business threatened to close the farm’s store, which has been serving the Berkshire community for more than 55 years. In January and February, an average of just 35 to 40 customers a day were walking through the store’s doors, says Tawczynski.

“We were almost out of business,” he said. “My parents and myself had to put our entire savings into just making payroll, hoping to get back to summer when we could make money.”

To combat the bridge closure, the farm ran a nine-mile detour route between a part of the farm’s fields and the store, which meant more work to produce the same supply for the store, said Tawczynski.

But since the start of spring, there’s been a reason to be optimistic for the store’s future, even if that future involves some late nights, Tawczynski says.

“Business has been good for us because we’re not a grocery store,” he said. “No one wants to step foot in a supermarket right now and I don’t blame them. It’s too congested, too crowded. We’ve been able to go through some back channels and have been able to find what people have wanted, including paper towels, toilet paper, hand sanitizer.”

Instead, some of the obstacles the family farm has faced is hiring enough staff members in the wake of a global pandemic.

“My current staff is fantastic. I just need twice as many,” he said. “This all happened so quickly. We normally would bring out four or five cashiers on Memorial Day. We’re having to bring people on sooner and it’s hard to train people. It’s like throwing them into chaos and expecting them to learn. It’s unfair of us to even ask it and we’re so appreciative of the staff we have.”

With 14 current employees in the store, Tawczynski says during peak season, the store could staff as many as 34 employees. The store reports that 80 percent of their current business is being conducted by curbside or contact-less pickup. The store also limits in-store customers to 10, abiding by Gov. Charlie Baker’s “Stay at Home” advisory.

The store also maintains an active online presence with their Facebook page promoting weekly contests, which will soon include a weekly “Chopped” competition, using some basic ingredients that can be found in the store.

Tawczynski hopes that by staying positive in uncertain times, the family farm will remain a part of the Berkshire community for generations to come.

“For the first time, I’m able to make a small profit. So I’m not going to miss an opportunity to keep the place going,” he said. “We just hope when all this is over, they don’t forget about us.”

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