Our weekly series continues, talking story with local farmers, ranchers, and other food producers about their crucial efforts to sustain our communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
A conversation with Will Lydgate, Owner & CEO of Lydgate Farms
By Dani Douglass
He wasn’t always a farmer. In fact, Will Lydgate, owner and chief executive officer of Lydgate Farms on Kauai, studied as a musician for several years. Long before his days harvesting cacao on his 46-acre specialty chocolate farm in Kapaa, he received some inspirational advice from Livingston Taylor, brother of Grammy Award-winning musician James Taylor.
“He told me that the secret to having a career is to find an audience,” Lydgate reflected. “And I feel that we found an audience.”
The audience he’s playing to these days is his farm’s loyal customers and volunteers, which Lydgate affectionally refers to as the “chocolate ohana.” The dedicated group of volunteers has supported him through the challenging COVID-19 pandemic by harvesting cacao while practicing social distancing.
“And our customers, they have kept us alive,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the Lydgate Farm, which also grows award-winning vanilla and honey, was well on its way expanding from a small to medium-sized farm. Its upward trajectory was suddenly interrupted by the pandemic when people stopped coming to the farm. But instead of giving up, Lydgate found opportunities in the moments of stillness.
“We can’t pause this business,” Lydgate said. “Farming is an essential business because the plants don’t stop growing. My trees have no idea that anything is wrong. They are perfectly happy and growing bigger than ever with even greater yields.”
Like many small farms, Lydgate swiftly shifted his focus internally, first making sure that his staff of five was taken care of through federal assistance such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES). Although he was able to secure the temporary assistance and keep his employees, he was not without challenges. Some issues that were harder to endure included losing revenue from farm tour sales and delays in getting the fertilizer he uses on his crops.
Despite a “weird, funky mood” that he sometimes found himself in during this time, Lydgate has taken full advantage of the fact that it’s been so quiet the phone isn’t even ringing. It’s allowed him to be creative and put on his business and marketing hat.
He’s ramped up the company’s online sales and marketing tactics. Now he’s moving as much chocolate as before the pandemic hit. Some examples of ways he positioned his products to be appealing to customers are his Chocolate Survival Kits and the Mother’s Day activity kit.
“We have a pretty robust email list, and that’s been our saving grace,” he said. “We were really dependent on people coming directly to us, and now we’ve had to market to our customers directly. It’s highlighted the fact that this is an important part of creating that lifetime customer.”
Lydgate is grateful for the support and assistance he’s received from his small community, including guidance from an agriculture loan officer, the Hawaii Small Business Development Center, and Kauai Visitors Bureau. He’s also grateful for the countless hours and hard work that’s been put in by the Kauai Police Department and Kauai Emergency Management Agency. He recently donated chocolate to various agencies working on the frontlines to show his support and gratitude.
When it comes to the agriculture industry surviving, Lydgate sees it as possible even in a time when farms are struggling and closing. He said that it’s the people that love Hawaii who will allow farms to survive. He wants to see farmers make more money because if they do, more people will want to farm. “People are willing to pay,” Lydgate said. “We need to connect directly with the customer with attractive products that are well processed.”
Now Lydgate is looking to the future and making plans for restarting farm tours for the visitors that will ascend his property once the state’s 14-day quarantine mandate is eased. Although he’s disappointed with the executive leadership at the state level, his resiliency and flexibility remain strong. He’s confident that his farm will be able to weather the storm and come out sweeter than before.
Follow Lydgate Farms on Instagram: @lydgatefarms
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