Year of COVID-19 has shown our local farms’ resiliency
The Recorder, April 7, 2021. By CLAIRE MORENON
A year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly everything about our lives. For us at CISA, and the farmers we work with, this can be measured by the agricultural calendar and the ways COVID impacted each season.
The early days of the pandemic coincided with what are usually the busy early days of the growing season on local farms, so farmers were scrambling to adjust to a very uncertain future even as they welcomed spring lambs, set seeds into soil and boiled maple sap into syrup. This spring feels less frenetic and panicked than this time last year, certainly, but farmers are still juggling countless unknowns as we head toward the summer.
One big question is how changing pandemic circumstances will continue to shift consumer demand for locally grown food. Last year, consumer demand for local food spiked, especially for local meat, farm shares, vegetable plants, pick-your-own crops, and farms offering delivery or curbside pickup.
It’s easy to see how this interest was influenced in different ways by the pandemic: People were looking for alternatives to busy grocery stores, they were concerned about having regular access to food, and more time at home meant more interest in gardening and other outdoor activities.
For the farms that flexed to accommodate this increased interest, the question is: Will shoppers come back as the crisis passes? Should they plant enough crops, raise enough animals, and hire enough staff to meet last year’s level of demand, or will those investments be lost as life returns to a new form of normal? So far this year, the signs are promising — anecdotally, we’ve been hearing that demand is high for farm shares (so if you’re thinking about it, this is the time to sign up!), and some plant nurseries are already accepting pre-orders to manage increased demand. The hope is that people loved getting fresh veggies every week through their farm shares, or enjoying meat that was responsibly raised by a local farmer, or discovering the delicious fun of picking strawberries or apples on a gorgeous day, and will keep on enjoying those local pleasures in the years to come.
Farm worker vaccinations are another moving target this spring. Farm workers, along with so many other essential workers in the food chain, took on enormous risk over the last year to keep all of us fed, and it’s vital to ensure that they have real access to vaccinations. Farm workers are eligible to be vaccinated right now, but existing online appointment portals reward people with time and easy internet access, and many farm workers face barriers on top of that: transportation, language, and, for some, uncertainty about whether undocumented people are eligible for the vaccine (they are).
Some groups, like Community Health Center of Franklin County, are working directly with farm owners to ensure vaccinations for workers. CISA has been working with partners and legislators to advocate for timely and equitable access to the vaccine — this is a basic acknowledgement of their humanity and the central role they play in keeping all of us fed.
State funding for HIP, the Healthy Incentives Program, is currently in the budget process for fiscal year 2022 (starting this July). This program provides an instant rebate when shoppers use SNAP to purchase produce from participating local farms. In a time of both increased hunger and so much uncertainty, funding HIP at the full $13 million and ensuring that it runs year-round will mean that people who rely on the program can count on access to fresh, healthy food, and farmers can count on the income it brings.
The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative is leading the Campaign for HIP Funding — updates can be found at mafoodsystem.org. CISA is currently raising money to fund our support of SNAP and HIP at farmers’ markets and to expand our own anti-hunger program for low-income seniors, Senior FarmShare — you can learn more about the Local Food for All campaign at buylocalfood.org.
Farmers are used to uncertainty — it’s part of the deal in a weather-dependent, narrow profit-margin, globally-competitive business. A year of COVID-19 has shown how resilient our local farms are, and that we can depend on them to keep us fed during a crisis. If local farms have made this past year easier or more enjoyable for you — or your interest is piqued by reading this — consider how you can keep your support going as we head into spring and beyond. Find a farm share, your nearest farmers’ market, and restaurants and retailers that buy local at buylocalfood.org.
Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) of South Deerfield.