When Emily and Landon Knowles opened the doors of their farm store last month, their vision was simple: to create a place where friends and neighbors in Carey could go for fresh food.
“If there’s somewhere close to home that someone can get food, it really, really adds to a community’s well-being,” Emily Knowles told the Idaho Mountain Express in the first week of March, days before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Idaho.
She couldn’t have imagined how true—and how literal—that sentiment would prove to be in the weeks ahead.
A month after the Itty Bitty Farms store’s opening, the COVID-19 infection rate in Blaine County has skyrocketed to become one of the highest in the nation. Idahoans have been ordered to stay in their houses when possible, and urged to stick close to home when they leave for essentials. For Carey, a town with no grocery store, the Knowles’ vision came to life just in time.
Long before a global coronavirus pandemic reached Blaine County, before the shelter-in-place orders went into place and toilet paper shelves were cleaned bare, the Knowleses recognized a need in their community. The nearest grocery store was in Richfield, 20 minutes away, and the local gas station offered little in fresh food and basics.
“We always knew Carey needed a little something more than gas station food,” Knowles said. The couple hopes that the store can serve as a “hub” of sorts for the town, she said, in the pandemic and beyond.
Now, the need for something more than gas station food is stronger than ever. Along with offering fresh food from their farm and baked goods made by community members, Knowles makes the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive to Twin Falls once a week to stock up on basic groceries to sell.
The store has seen a surge in customers in the past week or two, a bittersweet development for the Knowleses.
“We’ve had an increase in people shopping with us, which is great,” Emily Knowles said. “But it’s also a reflection of how hard it is for everyone right now.”
When Knowles and her husband first opened the store, they knew they wanted community involvement to extend beyond shopping. The store also sells baked goods, fresh vegetables, and crafts that have been made and grown by neighbors with a hobby garden or a penchant for baking.
Cassie O’Crowley, who also lives in Carey, began selling homemade cinnamon rolls at the Carey farmer’s market a few years back. Now, she bakes two dozen cinnamon rolls a day, three days a week, to sell at the Itty Bitty Farms store.
“We’re so excited for the opportunity to have food right here,”O’Crowley said. “And it’s really been fun to make the cinnamon rolls and know that people enjoy them.”
Knowles sees this kind of community involvement as especially important in the economic uncertainty of a pandemic.
“A lot of people are out of work,” Knowles said. “We’re trying to encourage people to bake some extra bread, make a few extra cupcakes, and we’ll buy it from you.”
The store has another new offering, a sign of the times: fabric masks, sewn by Carey resident Charmaine McPhearson. A sign requests a donation if possible, but notes that the masks are free to anybody who wants one.
McPhearson said she came up with the idea while browsing a sewing group on Facebook. “[A member of the group] said if you can, please make these free, because these are hard times for everyone,” McPhearson recalled. “With the uncertainty of the economy and people out of work right now, if you can do something for free you might as well do it.”
McPhearson estimates that she’s “easily” made more than 100 masks in recent weeks, including some distributed to local first responders.
“I think everyone is still a little on edge, even though as far as I know we don’t have any cases here in town,” McPhearson said. Still, she pointed out, lots of Carey residents travel to Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley for work—her own husband included.
Launching a business in the midst of a pandemic has “definitely been an overwhelming situation,” Knowles said. For now, she said, the couple is taking things one step at a time and “rolling with the punches.”
“The situation is constantly changing for everyone, and we’re no exception,” Knowles said. “We’re just trying to figure it out day by day.”