This is the second of a special three-part series by Martha Wagner and Mi Ae Lipe about how COVID-19 is transforming local food systems—farmers markets, local farms, and community and backyard gardens.

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As we all know, no part of our lives has been left untouched by the coronavirus pandemic, and the same goes for community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, urban agriculture, and local food purveyors. In scenarios that would have been unthinkable just two months ago, the demand for local food has shot through the roof.

In recent years, neither CSA farms nor farmers markets have been immune to changes in how Americans want to buy groceries, as discussed in our blog post from October 2019. Sustainability and business consultant Rebecca Thistlethwaite speculated that the rise in online grocery sales, meal kit services, and more people eating out or getting by on snacks were leading to declines in farmers market sales and CSA memberships. That has been confirmed anecdotally in conversations with farm after farm I’ve spoken to the past several years, with CSA signups plummeting as much as 50 or 70 percent.

But now with coronavirus’s sweeping spread, consumers are worried. They want as few hands on their food as possible, fewer risky trips to grocery stores, and the assurance of a safe food supply that isn’t going to be jeopardized by contamination-related shutdowns, and supply-chain shortages, and panic buying and hoarding.

In short, consumers are rediscovering local food. They want plenty of it. Right now.

Mind-Boggling Changes and Farmworker Shortage

The timing of this pandemic comes at one of the busiest times of the year for farms—spring planting and CSA signup. The sheer speed and grave risks of the COVID-19 outbreak have upended and threatened many traditional business models that farms rely on—farmers markets, CSAs, restaurants, farm stands, annual fundraising events, and even food bank distribution. Farms and local food producers all across the nation are scrambling to navigate these unchartered landscapes. Many are reeling from losing huge restaurant contracts, which provide crucial income. Others are struggling to accommodate unprecedented interest in CSA shares, bigger wholesale orders, and home delivery complexities to accommodate consumer demand. Some farmers are even considering whether to plant more land (and gamble on whether demand will continue once the pandemic eases).

Many farms are rushing to put as much of their product online as quickly as possible, whereas others are suffering because social distancing at farmers markets has limited the usual number of participating vendors; some farms remain on waiting lists. U-pick operations will almost certainly be discontinued this year, so farms will have to hire more labor or increase volunteer staff to pick fruit and package it for online ordering and curbside farm stand pickup.

As if farms needed another thing to worry about, many are concerned about a shortage of labor available for the growing and harvesting season. After putting out several mixed messages, the Trump administration issued a recent ban on all immigration to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but it does not include those enrolled in the H-2A guest worker program. Still, the administration is reportedly seeking to cut the wages of farmworkers, thinking that it will help struggling farmers better weather economic uncertainty.

Not only that, but the new $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) does not require any of its funds to be used to protect farmworkers from the pandemic, including personal protection equipment, compensation due to illness, or housing or transportation options to reduce the spread of the virus, according to an article by the Environmental Working Group.

CSA Demand Skyrocketing

Green Wagon Farm in Ada, Michigan, offers 13-week, 26-week, and 50-week CSA shares in three sizes with options for members to pick up weekly prepacked bags at the farm in a drive-through setup or at one of two farmers markets in nearby Grand Rapids. CSA Manager Rebecca Henderson says she is expecting member numbers to rise from 150 to 250 very soon. Members can customize their online orders through the software Farmigo.

While Green Wagon Farm is only a decade old, another farm currently experiencing rapid CSA growth has the oldest certified organic CSA program in New Jersey. Honey Brook Organic Farm is 30 years old, but the farm—with one location outside Trenton and another near Princeton—has had its ups and downs. Several years ago, owners Sherry Dudas and Jim Kinsel experienced a 500-member drop in CSA membership. Today the CSA has become one of the largest in the country with 3,000 members.

Kinsel and Dudas recently told Next City.org just how the CSA caught the attention of new customers, many of them Northern New Jersey residents who commute to Manhattan, and how it was able to ramp up its program to meet member needs by adding products from other nearby farms and food businesses (meats, eggs, salsa, and even some frozen meals) and through home delivery. Like a growing number of farms, Dudas and Kinsel have been using a CSA software management program called Harvie to make online ordering easier for the farm and CSA members.

Urban Tilth in the industrial city of Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco, operates a three-acre farm along with seven smaller community gardens, and employs mostly local youth of color to grow and distribute the crops. Before the pandemic hit, the 15-year-old organization had about 50 members in its CSA program. In the last few weeks, the number of members has more than tripled to 170. “Having a local source of some portion of your food just seems like a no-brainer, as opposed to depending on really long supply lines and food coming from way, way, way away,” Urban Tilth founder Doria Robinson told Civil Eats for a story posted April 15, 2020.

Farmer with laptop computer

Tough to Pivot But a Moment of Opportunity

Honey Brook was fortunate to have an infrastructure to deal with the exponential surge—delivery vans, an extensive mailing list, and contacts with other farmers. But most farmers are not so lucky, and for some, consumers’ sudden demand for local food can be hugely frustrating and difficult to accommodate.

As Rob Faux of Genuine Faux Farm in Tripoli, Iowa, said in a recent blog post, “Local foods is not a faucet you can turn on and off when you feel you need it…It is likely that local growers will do their best to put in more product in hopes that this demand will not fade by the time their crops reach harvest stage…If we all worked to support local foods consistently, then it would be a stronger asset to us now, when we need it most.”

For farmers struggling to deal with the pandemic, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) has been addressing current challenges in a podcast newly minted in March 2020. The first episode of the MOSES Organic Farming Podcast was titled “Market Farming in a Pandemic,” and the show has since covered tricky subjects like farmer mental health, safe produce handling, and how to build more resilient beef and dairy farms. The podcast also benefits from post-podcast farmer chats, webinars, and other MOSES resources.

One of the guests on this first episode is Janelle Maiocco, an online marketing expert. Based in Seattle, she is the CEO of Barn2Door, a software company that helps farmers connect with and sell to customers using their e-commerce software. Not surprisingly, in the podcast, Maiocco says that her company has been flooded by farm requests for options in online ordering, home delivery, “grab ’n’ gos” and other subscription services.

She encourages farmers, even those retailing mainly at farmers markets, to get an online presence through email marketing and social media as quickly as possible “because people are at home and shopping online…and interest has grown 10x.” She adds that many farms coming online in the past couple of weeks or even days “are getting orders right away because the community support is so strong.” She says that the pandemic has triggered changes that many farms knew they needed to make but maybe avoided because of discomfort with technology or a reluctance to change their business model. This crisis is helping them “see demand that they never knew was there…and the silver lining, if there is one, is that it’s forcing farmers to get good online fast.”

Simon Huntley, creator of another CSA management system called Harvie, has also seen huge interest from farms for similar services. He’s working on a concept called “Harvie Farms Local” that debuted in Pittsburgh in January 2020. As Huntley puts it, “it is a multifarm local food distributor using the customer-friendly power of the Harvie platform and delivers direct to the consumer’s door.” The results have been immediate; even though the main farm season won’t start until late May, farms are using Harvie’s “pop up farm stand” tools to run sales right now, and, according to Huntley, “Last week, we sold out of farm boxes in 45 minutes.”

Huntley adds, “My goal is not to compete with farms or existing distributors: what I want to do is build a successful farm product distribution system on top of Harvie that can then be used by farmers and other local entrepreneurs anywhere. In my view, figuring out this problem is what will truly change the game for local food economies. If we can perfect a distribution model that pays farmers to be farmers, rewards the costs of distribution, and serves the consumer well, local food can compete against national and international distribution.”

Farm Workers Wearing Masks in Barcelona

Near Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, April 16, 2020. Credit: Dani Codina of Alamy.

Federal Help—But an Uncertain Future

On April 17, 2020, the USDA announced the $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to support farmers and ranchers during the COVID-19 pandemic, including $16 billion in direct payments for farmers and ranchers suffering from actual losses or needing additional help with marketing and adjustment costs. Another $3 billion will be spent by the USDA to purchase agricultural products, including meat, dairy and produce, from regional and local distributors impacted by the closure of many restaurants, hotels, and other food-service entities. and provide food to those in need. The USDA will work with local food and regional distributors to deliver much-needed food to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits.

Much of these funds will be going to help already struggling livestock and dairy farms, with a relatively small portion going to farmers of row and specialty crops. There are also concerns that a disproportionate share of these funds will be gobbled up by large and medium-size commodity growers, with not much leftover for smaller farms that feed their local communities.

According to a story on Progressive Farmer’s website, Eric Deeble, the policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the USDA’s plan “lacks critical details to confirm whether it will actually reach all who need it.” Deeble said nothing in the plan reflects how USDA will follow Congress’ direction on the $9.5 billion fund created to include help for farmers that supply local food systems and farmers markets, among other food providers. “While every farmer harmed by the pandemic is deserving of assistance, there can be no justification for providing so little for the farmers that provide our families real food grown for them in their own communities, while simultaneously doubling payment limits for commodity growers and excluding safeguards that would prevent payments to millionaires,” Deeble said.

The bottom line? We all need to do our part to support local food in every way possible. All the time. So shop at your local farm stand or farmers market, sign up for a CSA, or order online from a farm. And write to your lawmaker or Congress person to influence policy change.

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Featured image on top: Photo by Dusan Kostic of Adobe Stock.

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