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Farming during the pandemic
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Farming during the pandemic

Early on after the pandemic hit unbelievable images of food waste circulated — dumped milk, smashed eggs, rotting produce — as school cafeterias and restaurant dining rooms sat empty. It’s been a hard time for farmers, but what they’re producing and where has played a part in how they are faring through this kind of storm.

Nash Bruce runs Five Hands Farm, a small vegetable farm in Lowell from which he supplies produce to restaurants, sells it at farmers markets and sends it to customers who subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture program through which customers buy seasonal local food directly from the farmer.

Buying directly through CSAs has seen a surge is popularity this year. Nash said that the program is capped at a certain number of memberships, and his was nearly full by the time COVID had become a public concern. He got a lot of inquiries in the spring, but at that time was already sold out.

“The biggest change has been new food safety considerations,” said Nash. “Just making sure we’re on top of safe food handling and sanitation, especially during processing and packing. Like everyone else we’ve also had to weather shipping delays.”

Not all farmers have been affected the same. It has varied from state to state and among types of crops and products.

“It has not directly affected the corn and soybean and other commodity growers as much as the vegetable farmers,” said Steve Groff, a lifelong farmer and founder of Cover Crop Coaching, who farms in Pennsylvania. “Some of the larger produce farmers who employ a lot of people, they've had to deploy new COVID protocols in the workplace.”

Hardest hit during the pandemic have been dairy farmers, said Groff. “They were already in a three-year low pricing cycle so the initial supply chain challenges made things even worse,” he explained. “It does seem to be better in the past month or so but not near enough to make up for what they've lost over since March, let alone over the past few years.”

A season like no other

No two seasons are ever the same for those working in farm fields. They’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and she often throws curveballs — early frost, drought, long heat spells, devastating storms. However, there’s always a demand for food — although types of food in demand change on the whims of consumers.

For Johnson’s Farm Produce in Hobart, its inventory of plants was ordered last year and paid for in January, and as the farm moved ahead with planting, they didn’t know what was in store, if customers were going to leave the safety of their homes to shop or have the financial means to shop as much with so many out of work.

“It was honestly very terrifying, but we learned how our customers adapted to the changes," said Johnson's manager Lyndsay Johnson. “Many decided to stay home and tend to their homes and many people planted a garden. More people were focusing on family.”

It turned out to be a good season. Johnson's opened later than usual for vegetable plants and florals, and had a shorter span of time for selling, but sold as much as they would have in a full season.

Next came U-pick season, first for strawberries and then for blueberries. Business was up a bit from a typical season, despite the heat, and Johnson said they noticed a lot of first-time customers looking to get out of the house and get some fresh air and spent time with family.

Johnson's will be opening its U-pick sunflower patch, which has operated for two years, in late August or early September. They’ve also added a new U-pick flower field opening this summer.

Johnson said it was challenging to find people to work in the beginning, and that they needed more manpower to keep up with sanitizing.

“There were many times it was just our family and a few staff. We also had to move many staff to strictly sanitizing, purchase many different cleaning products and spend longer hours on clean up,” she said.

For Bruce, it has proven easier than usual to find help, as so many people have been out of work due to the pandemic and are looking for employment.

Silver linings for farmers

According to Groff, some vegetables are bringing all-time high prices. “For me personally, I grow heirloom tomatoes and am getting the highest prices I've ever gotten. Sweet corn and other popular vegetables are also bringing top dollar,” he said. "Of course, that's good for the farmer but for the consumer, they are paying higher for those products.”

Although demand for vegetables waned as the world stayed home and restaurants shut down or did greatly reduced carry-out business, Bruce said that part of his business has remained relatively steady.

“In some cases gourmet and premium product prices have shot up, so that we’ve been a more affordable option than going through a distributor,” he said. “Some clients have scaled back, but we’re still doing good business with chefs.”

A lot of farmers markets were canceled or delayed this year, but that part of the business has also been good for Bruce.

“We are selling at the Cedar Lake market this year. The start date was shifted to June and they have implemented some requirements and guidelines, but attendance has been great,” he said.

While there’s been a lot of struggles for farmers during the pandemic, there have been some silver linings, like the increased interest in buying locally produced food from small farms. “I think it reveals the positives of localized food production and has people thinking about what they eat,” Bruce said.

“COVID has caused the industry to evaluate supply chain dynamics in the context of a pandemic. It is all but impossible to prepare for something like this, but I know changes are being discussed, one being the support of shorter supply chain opportunities like farmers markets and other direct sales to consumers,” said Groff.

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