Columnist Claire Morenon: Farmers grapple with uncertainty

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 30, 2020

The spread of COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on many of the hidden vulnerabilities in our national food system — that complex network of farms, food processors, distributors, stores, emergency food providers, schools and restaurants that get food on our plates.

A Smithfield pork plant in Iowa that processed 5% of all pork in the United States was forced to close in mid-April because so many of its workers had fallen ill — a scary look at how the disease can spread in crowded workplaces, and how the extreme concentration of meat production in the United States jeopardizes our nation’s food supply.

Dairy farms, which are subject to a federal pricing structure that relies heavily on exports and which, even pre-pandemic, often did not cover the costs of producing milk in the Northeast, are especially hard-hit as milk prices plummet. Many of them will not survive this crisis.

There have been widespread reports of farmers throughout the country leaving fields unharvested because their existing markets, from restaurants to school dining services, closed so abruptly. Meanwhile, food banks and other emergency food suppliers are seeing unprecedented levels of need as millions of people are suddenly out of work.

This disconnect, between farms urgently needing outlets for their products and so many hungry people needing food, speaks to the scale and speed of the disruption we are weathering, and to the scale and complexity of the systems that usually feed us.

Supply chains that serve restaurants, schools, hospitals, and workplace cafeterias, for example, aren’t the same as those that bring food to supermarkets. It takes time and resources for dairy processors to shift milk packaging from food-service-sized bags to home-kitchen-sized bottles, or for farms that sold produce wholesale to restaurants and institutions to rework their packing and distribution systems for grocery stores and food pantries. These changes are costly, and the benefits won’t be permanent in this constantly changing circumstance.

Local farms are not exempt from the extreme difficulty presented by coronavirus. Here, too, farmers that sell their products year-round were faced with sudden market changes as winter farmers’ markets closed early, restaurant demand plummeted, and tens of thousands of college students left the region. Local farmers have adapted quickly. Two farmer-run collaborative home-delivery services, Massachusetts Food Delivery and Sunderland Farm Collaborative, emerged within the first weeks of the crisis to provide a sales outlet for farms and to meet a new consumer need. Other farms around the region are offering delivery, online ordering and curbside pickup. These rapid changes reveal the determination and innovative spirit of local farmers, and the advantages of shorter supply chains.

Even while creating new marketing and distribution businesses almost overnight, farmers are also working in their greenhouses, fields and barns every day, making investments in an unknowable season ahead. They can’t wait to make decisions until the current uncertainty is resolved: if they don’t plant seeds now, they’ll have nothing to harvest later in the season.

Farmers’ markets, which were declared an essential service by the Baker administration, normally begin to open in April. Many are delayed this year as farmers’ market managers and vendors work closely with their local boards of health and other town agencies to figure out how they can protect the health of their customers and vendors while functioning as vital food sources for the communities they serve.

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms, where people pay up front for a weekly share of the harvest, are figuring out new systems this year, from pre-boxed shares to limiting the number of people permitted into the share room. Pick-your-own season, which usually begins with strawberries in June, is entirely up in the air. And it remains to be seen, when the growing season really ramps up, whether local farms will be able to find sales outlets for the full volume of fruits and vegetables that are usually sold to restaurants, schools and other institutions.

It’s almost a cliché at this point: we are living in uncertain times. The future certainly feels especially uncertain for people who are medically vulnerable or plunged into economic uncertainty. But from another perspective, the spread of COVID-19 has simply brought us face to face with existing realities. Among them: many of the workers declared essential — those who work at grocery stores or in food production, those who do deliveries and those who grow our food — are also among our most undervalued workers, underpaid, unlikely to receive sick time, and sometimes threatened with deportation. The rest of us literally owe them our lives. We might all be living through this unprecedented event together, but the effects are not borne equally within our communities.

Another certainty is that local farms are unfathomably resilient and adaptable, and they are deeply dedicated to feeding our communities. With support from all of us, local farms will continue to feed us throughout this crisis, and they will be there when this is over. Visit buylocalfood.org/covid to find details on how farms and other local businesses are here for you.

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