Amid COVID-19, a UNL Senior Balances Online School, a Small Business, and the Post Pandemic Job Search

April 16, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·

Hannah Esch started Oak Barn Beef in 2018. Last spring, she barely filled an order per week. Now, business is booming. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Esch)

Seniors in college will always be known as the class of COVID-19. Campuses across Nebraska have sent students home, moved classes online, and cancelled graduation ceremonies. But one student is coping with a different issue: too much business.

Hannah Esch hoped the spring of her senior year would be eventful: wrapping up classes at UNL, and filling orders at Oak Barn Beef, a direct-to-consumer ranch she owns.

Then, everything changed.

“All of the classes at the University of Nebraska were changed to go online," she said. "And everyone was also advised to pretty much move back to their hometowns, if they are able to."

But Esch is mostly wrestling with a different kind of chaos: since COVID-19 hit, Oak Barn Beef’s sales are through the roof.

“I now have two pounds of beef in my freezer, and that was probably close to 800 three weeks ago,” Esch mused.

And unlike ranchers who sell to conventional beef supply chains, owning a direct-to-consumer business means taking distribution into her own hands. Lately, it’s taken up most of her time.

"My mom and dad are very generous in helping raise the cattle, too, so while I'm still in school, they're the ones who are who are feeding the cattle every day," she said.

"I help as much as I can, but I'm doing everything from the marketing, to distribution, to planning for the cattle."

As we spoke, Esch was actually running orders out to local customers. She paused with apology to run ice cold packets of beef to her neighbors' porches.

Esch sells to customers nationwide: the company recently celebrated having shipped to all fifty states. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Esch)

Esch’s days are a mix of deliveries, shipping to buyers nationwide, finishing up her studies. Also, like all graduating seniors, she's trying to imagine the job opportunities of a post-pandemic world.

“We all thought we had a few more months to decide, and find careers before graduation," Esch said. "And then basically, once classes moved online, you're close to being done, and you're like, 'Okay, I should probably find a job now!'”

Now it’s unclear what jobs will be out there at all: some peers have had potential employers write back to say the position they intended to hire them for has been dissolved. Esch initially intended to get a job that will allow her to work alongside the business.

“I'm still looking for another position, but it is so difficult to interview for jobs right now," she said. "And I'm talking to my peers too, and they're struggling with it.”

Esch isn't sure whether Oak Barn Beef's spike in business marks a more permanent turn in the business's journey.

She thinks the uptick likely stemmed from wider beef shortages after Americans started stocking up at the grocery store. Supply chains have since struggled to keep up with demand.

But even after business stabilizes, Esch hopes the pandemic woke some customers up to the benefits of buying from small-scale producers.

"My hope is that the new customers that came in because the grocery store was out of a beef realized that they like that connection to knowing directly where their food is coming from, and having the connection with the farmers," she said.

Too may orders is a nice problem to have, but Esch still looks forward to slivers of free time when she can savor them.

"When I'm on the farm, I can just go out on the back deck, or we have like a pond...that's really actually relaxing," she said.

“I don't mind social distancing a ton yet, but maybe in a few months I'll be ready to be done...but right now, I've been enjoying it honestly.”

She's also devoted off time to building skills she otherwise wouldn't have prioritized: she recently started a Youtube channel for Oak Barn Beef, and is learning to code websites.

It’s all part of her plan to stay positive--and hireable. And maybe, she says, the pandemic will ultimately boost her resume.

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