CISA discusses how farmers ‘kept the faith and moved forward’ in face of COVID-19

The Recorder, April 17, 2021.By MARY BYRNE, Staff Writer

SOUTH DEERFIELD – The year 2020 was one of dramatic change and challenge, panelists echoed during this week’s Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) annual meeting.

“At this moment a year ago, it was impossible to know what things were going to look like as the season progressed,” CISA Special Projects Director Margaret Christie said during the virtual event on Wednesday. “But farmers were already making these dramatic changes in order to adapt and to figure out how to get food to people in this new world, that we didn’t know what looked like.”

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived during the time of year when farmers are typically deciding what to plant, and how much of it, or who to hire.

“There was no way to forecast what things were going to look like,”

Christie said. “So farmers just kind of kept the faith and moved forward with these big changes, putting seeds in the ground, making sure they’d have food to get to people, one way or another.”

Later in the spring, CISA began to see signs that consumer demand was changing, but it was high.

“That demand, in most cases, stayed high throughout the season, so that was very gratifying,” Christie said.

Julia Coffey, owner and founder of Mycoterra Farm in South Deerfield, said 2020 – her farm’s 10th anniversary – was supposed to be the year she established a work-life balance.

“2020 had other things in mind,” she said. “At the beginning of March, when everything shut down … we were looking at losing our university accounts, college campuses, farmers’ markets, and all of the restaurants were closing. That amounted to about 80 percent of our income stream.”

Coffey said when she got notice that the Northampton Farmers’ Market was closing, she reached out to other vendors to see if anyone else was interesting in offering a home delivery service to their customers.

“We built a website in a matter of a couple days,” she said, noting she went to CISA for feedback on the site. “We had a million hits in the first weekend; that was the beginning of Mass Food Delivery.”

Although Coffey and other farmers weren’t in the business of aggregation or home delivery, they established a wide net of households for delivery, covering most of Massachusetts.

Coffey said if she had thought about any of it “for an instant,” it likely wouldn’t have happened.

“But when the house is on fire, you don’t think about how it caught fire or a game plan for what to do, you get out and you put out the fire,” she said. “It was really a knee-jerk reaction, not only for our farm’s viability … but also as we saw global supply chain impacts very early in the pandemic.”

At the legislative level, state Sen. Jo Comerford, DNorthampton, said there was a “quick recognition” by legislators that the supply chains farmers depend on had shifted.

“Quickly, we made the connection in the Legislature that food was public health; food was economic development; food was a … frontline way of surviving this pandemic that was coming at us like a tidal wave,” she said.

She referenced the work done on budgets, including the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) that incentivizes spending Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars locally, and the $30 million that was put into the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program.

“Some of that goes right to farmers,” she said.

Coffey also spoke of the challenge of getting personal protective equipment (PPE) for farm workers.

“There was a lot of networking,” she said. “There was a lot of resourcefulness.”

At the annual meeting, CISA Executive Director Phil Korman also talked about the way COVID-19 has affected farmers and the need for advocacy around farm worker needs.

“It was clear from the onset of the pandemic that our basic need for food was feeling threatened, and the governor responded by including farms, farmers’ markets and others in the state food economy, and defining those folks as essential workers,” he said. “When you think about it, how could it be otherwise?”

Farm workers were unable to avoid the risks most Americans were able to avoid – working in-person, interacting with strangers and commuting to work in crowded vehicles.

“They really had no choice,” he said.

Korman added that some farm workers are immigrants, who lack access to health care and education.

“We sang their praises when our families’ food supply was endangered, but the commonwealth was not ensuring that they could get tested until CISA and other advocates, with the help of our legislators – led by Sen. Comerford and Rep. (Natalie) Blais – turned that around,” Korman said.

He added that the same is happening now with vaccines.

” All of us who have tried to get vaccines, Korman said, “you have a much better chance if you have resources, time, and you’re not suffering barriers because of culture and language.”

In partnership with others, Korman said CISA aims to highlight the debt society owes to farm workers.

“We’re working to change government policies and laws to improve both the viability of farm businesses, and to address equity and honor those who have worked on farms, who have not yet received the respect they are due.”

He argued that more COVID-19 vaccine clinics should be dedicated to farm workers and more community clinics should be administering vaccines. For example, earlier this year, the Community Health Center of Franklin County began working with the grant-funded Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program to coordinate vaccinations with a special focus on agricultural workers in congregate living.

Comerford thanked CISA for leading the conversation on essential workers.

“You help elevate the issues, and that’s why we can work,” she said.

“You’re absolutely right with regard to how hard it was to get testing, and … vaccines; you’re absolutely right. The state can and should do more to bring more vaccines local, to break down barriers to access.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @ MaryEByrne