Years ago I was sitting in a cafe when the lights went out. A regional electrical failure led to the stunning silence. And then, within moments…. everyone began talking to each other.
In the last month, the lights have been going out in our world. And people are talking to each other. We NEED to talk to each other. The economy is crashing. Travel is gone. Gathering together is gone. The streets of NYC are almost empty. States and countries are shutting down. Our carbon footprint is shrinking rapidly. Everything is uncertain. Our world is changing.
One activity that has grown in importance to people is the local production of food. We cannot live without food. People especially want food they believe is safe. They want to know who grew it and how it was grown. We are seeing a huge demand for local, organic, soil-grown food. Yes, soil-grown. This kind of food is quickly sold out in stores. People are driving two hours to our farm to avoid going into a supermarket at all.
Like everyone, farmers are deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Real Organic Project sent out a questionnaire to our 560 approved farms. Within two days we got 130 replies. That is a HIGH response rate for farmers. Some can't keep up with demand. Some have lost all of their markets. Some are planning on planting less due to the uncertainty. Some are planning on planting more as a civic responsibility. Here are a few reports from the front lines, from the people who feed you.
“It's still quite cold and dark in our mountain valley, as I'm about to head off the ranch out to our fulfillment warehouse to pack orders. It's about an hour away down the Salmon River Canyon from our remote operation in a place where UPS can reach us. It's a big day, as the demand is blowing us away. We can hardly meet it with our limited team, which importantly is only our family and 3 regular employees. I really don't feel comfortable hiring anyone else to help us, simply because I don't know where they've been and who they've contacted in this new world of coronavirus. Thankfully, we live in a corona-free (for now) very remote area, nestled in the Rocky Mountains.
“And for the first time, we meet people's simple need for sustenance. Certainly, before, folks purchased our beef for health benefits, flavor and the planet healing attributes of our regenerative operation. But now, they need food, as their store shelves are empty not only of organic, but all conventional proteins as well. It is so important we serve them responsibly, and it weighs heavily on each of us.
“But we'll put the music on, and continue the work that is our passion: connecting people with the soils and really the heart of regenerating landscapes through wild protein. And thankfully, we can still do that for now. We are grateful.”
-Glenn Elzinga, Alderspring Ranch
“Farmers Markets have been deemed an essential activity in California. Here at Full Belly, we are continuing to plant, tend, and market our crops to an urban population dependent on the continuation of our supply chain. Yesterday I went to a farmers market in Palo Alto. My sons did the same on Tuesday in Berkeley, and a partner was in Marin on Thursday. We took precautions, created a distance between ourselves and our patrons, set up the stand differently, used plenty of hand sanitizer (a lavender product with 80% alcohol made by a neighboring farm). We had one person handling money and credit cards wearing gloves and spraying the hand sanitizer regularly on hands… a protocol for minimizing risk from Covid 19.
“Patrons pointed at our products that they didn’t touch, we collected, bagged and totaled their purchases, or we put those items on a table where they were able to place things in their own bags. The table acted as a barrier between our customers and our farm crew. Social distancing was encouraged. There were none of the regular hugs that are often requested by some of our friends- not even a fist bump or elbow. We were taking the best precautions to be safe and responsible to them and to the farm where we would be returning.
“Are we being excessive? Alarmist? Foolish consumers of the ever-present warnings of pandemic? Or are we being cautious, prudent and creative in a time of an uncertain virus? Are we threatening our farm community of 4 families, interns, and farmworkers by venturing out to the city to bring them our food? Or can we take the best precautions and be relatively safe and responsible?
“The answers here depend upon your source of information and your choices. It may be a coming event with unavoidable outcomes – potentially overwhelming one's personal beliefs. I see the markets as essential. The food that we produce as essential to health and resiliency of those we feed. Mental support is provided by regularity, the minimization of fear and bringing comfort and perspective into lives where folks are being asked to shelter in their homes. Risk has always been part of life in rural areas. This is another risk however small or great. Yet we can take precautions as advised by health professionals balanced with the greater good of feeding our communities.
“We have a 35 year history of bringing food to Palo Alto. Every Saturday for 35 years we have been feeding our clients there. We have fed their children as they grew families. They in turn watched our infants grow to helpers and adults. Many now know the names of our grandchildren who we occasionally throw in the truck at 3:30 am to be part of the Saturday morning market. We have a multigenerational relationship with our market. These people see us as their friends and source of healthy sustenance. They expressed gratitude that we came yesterday. We plan to continue taking care of those we can by growing good food and sharing our work with others.
“The US has had more than 100 years of deconstructing the balance between prosperity of rural economies and urban culture. We who farm have long believed and intimately understood the vital role that food producers and farm workers played in creating social stability and abundance. Many of us believed deeply in fundamentals. Healthy soil makes healthy food. We need more hands paid fairly for the work of seeds being planted, soil stewarded, animals respected, loved, and humanely raised, the tools for tending and harvest being kept sharp, and the human exchange of food and gratitude. This vision has been quashed by the power of capital, the distortions of cheap fuel, and the lack of attention and respect to all that supports our cultural riches.
“Those small farmers who hung on and continue to provide local food to their communities had their part of it right: resilience comes from diversity, decentralizing, and self reliance. Those farmworkers, cooks, and cleaners, often people of color, were making abundance even while they were pushed to the shadows. We need to continue our work, bring our food to those in need. We revel in the miracles of birth, germination, springtime blooms, and the sweetness of that apple or peach or melon that finds its way to our tables.
“The world needs its farmers and those who labor in the food system more than ever. Take precautions. Assess risk and act to keep yourselves safe while knowing our task and future has many uncertain outcomes save one – we feed those in need of our work.”
– Paul Muller, Full Belly Farm
“I am experiencing cancellations of CSA’s due to layoffs. The money is so important to the start of my season for seed supply and weeding labor. I am very concerned about having the funds for employment. I also was expanding markets this year and I don’t know what will happen with sales for my production.
“I am trying to adapt! I don’t have a website yet so it will be hard for me to market online like other farm businesses. I am seeing a decrease in CSA interest and it’s an awkward time to try and capitalize off of layoffs. It’s all very tricky. I also have two big farmer's markets I supply to and I’m unsure if they will be closed for the season or not.”
– Savannah Flynn, Flynn Farms
“Our biggest concern is letting consumers know we are still operating! Farmer's markets are 90% of our business and we're concerned they will be closed.
“Just like any other season, we will all get up every morning and strive to make our farms better. Finding better ways to do the little things, learn from our peers. We all need to come together as a community of organic farmers and reach out for a hand if you need it or just someone to talk too. It may be a tight year for all of us, but just like any other we will make it through and come out stronger. From our family to yours we wish you the best.
“We here at the farm believe that now is the time for high quality, small scale organic farmers to make a huge difference in the local food system.”
– Kyle Dionne, KRD Farms in Illinois
“Farm for Health! Farming can be a healthy and rewarding profession where people can get fresh air, exercise, and social contact, while producing real food that keeps people healthy. I really like the idea of creating a Farm Corps, similar to Americorps, with student loan debts forgiven in exchange for helping produce and distribute real, healthy food.
“I’ve also been urging some groups in MN to help connect direct market producers with shoppers and to issue guidelines for fruit and vegetable growers, so that they can sell their products while staying safe and social distancing.”
-Jim Riddle, Blue Fruit Farm in Minnesota
I read this from an Italian farmer:
“They are organizing to increase home delivery given the emergency and the increase in requests. We are a network that works with small producers and this emergency puts us to the test, but we are happy to be a real alternative.
“But we are working to increase home deliveries because, to date, with closed markets, this spending model is the only guarantee of survival for producers in the short chain who need to continue working. We need to continue working!”
“These are new and crazy and uncertain times indeed. My thinking has evolved from thinking this was overblown 10 days ago, to getting a reality check by losing my market a week ago, to hoping I can keep customers.
“Here’s the thing—having been the president of my farmers’ market board before parenthood, I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t do the same thing. I’m not even actively pushing the market to appeal to stay open because it feels like such an enormous thing to be responsible for. Of course, while cases are low, it seems like a huge move to shut markets. But the point is to keep cases low and prevent the spiraling we see in Italy (which I just read on the BBC has now shut open-air markets). So I’m super conflicted about it. I’m not sure the extraordinary efforts we would have to go to minimize social contact at the market would be that much less onerous than taking, tallying, and bagging up people’s individual orders through the CSA. Plus, I think there are plenty of CSA folks who will place a weekly email order with us and pick it up through our drive-thru system we’re setting up in a church parking lot who might not feel comfortable going to a farmers’ market to buy from us. Things unfold so dramatically from day to day that it’s hard to know the right call. Suffice to say, I certainly don’t blame my market for being closed. They were following the mayor’s ban on gatherings above 50 people (and he’s just following the CDC) and couldn’t get an exemption. I wouldn’t be surprised if markets that try to stay open now aren’t eventually forced to close. I hope not. But we are simply adjusting now and feel grateful that we had a CSA to work with.
“The good news is that we’ve had over 25% increase in new CSA members since we opened it up a few days ago to new members. And people are very eager for our first delivery next Saturday.
“So that’s probably not the email you expected. But frankly, I just feel grateful to be able to earn any money at all. So many people just lost their jobs overnight. And if this goes on much longer, the fallout is going to spread to job sectors no one has considered now. Maybe we farmers are the lucky ones because eating is not optional.
“You guys are AWESOME!!”
– Emily Oakley, Three Springs Farm in Oklahoma
A final subject I have heard a lot about is farm labor. Will farms be able to keep their crews working? I have heard the most about the guest worker program called H2A. H2A is used by many small farms in New England as well as much larger farms in the South and West.
H2A is a program for workers from other countries to get a temporary work visa to do farmwork in the US. It has been threatened by the Trump administration to limit H2A workers coming into the US. Most of the farmwork in America is done by immigrants. About half are undocumented. The other half of them are in the H2A program. H2A has many requirements concerning fair pay and approved housing. It can be subject to abuse in many ways. In some places, workers are little more than serfs. In some places, it is a good program that serves both the farm owners and the farmworkers.
Without a path to citizenship, farmworkers have little protection from the law, no freedom to organize, and no chance to leave an abusive situation for a more fair employer.
“The biggest failure of the H2A program is that it doesn’t offer a path to citizenship or even a path to a green card. It is used to bring in the people who feed us and then to reject them. These people deserve to be given the full rights and protections of citizenship.
“H2A is subject to abuse, but far less so than the same workers experience in their home countries. We have heard, from reliable people, that the wage rate in Mexico is $1 an hour. We pay approximately $15 – $25 depending on the speed of the worker. The H2A contractor is required to pay the workers quite well; the question is whether they actually do. The realities of abuse of power are human nature and we see signs of it everywhere. But my impression is that it isn't as bad in the H2A context as it is outside of that.
“The number of workers willing to sign up for H2A suggests that things are far better here than at home.
“There is no question that virtually all of North American Agriculture relies on Central American labor. We have two choices; figure a way to import our agricultural labor (and make our food expensive enough to pay them a living wage), or import our food (from places where ag workers are virtually enslaved).
“Basically, government policies are being written by big multinationals – who are snickering at the way that the laws they wrote are working (including USMCA).
“If people think relying on other countries for their toilet paper is scary, they should be enraged that their corporate-owned government is putting American farms out of business. What happens when we become even more reliant on foreign food production than we already are?
“You can ramp up production of masks and rubber gloves pretty quickly. It will be a whole lot harder to instantly produce crops from farms, and a farming infrastructure, that no longer exists.”
– A Real Organic Project berry grower.
“Lady Moon Farms owns and operates close to 3000 acres. Over half our acreage is in FL, with another 40% in GA and the remainder in PA. We are 100% organic and grow 50+ different commodities, including tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, squash, eggplant, and bunching greens. We ship domestically to wholesale distributors and supermarket chains. We have been in business for over 30 years and operating in FL since 1999. Over the years we have weathered our fair share of adversities including hurricanes, freezes, extreme rainy seasons along with heavy disease and insect pressures made more challenging because of our organic practices. We managed to stay in business and do what we love, grow healthy, fresh produce for our communities. During this time, the number of small to medium sized farms has been dwindling. Many family farms have had to shut down, the farms that remain are more corporate in nature.
“The last five years it has become harder to stay competitive because of the intense pressure from Mexican imports. Their labor is a fraction of the cost we pay in the states. We have seen our labor dollars as a % of sales increase by 15 percentage points in 7 years. We do participate in the H2A program which is necessary with the decreased availability of domestic labor. After we pay for housing, travel, and transportation we are closer to $16/hr vs the FL min wage of $8.50 vs $9-10 A DAY in Mexico. We cannot compete. While this is happening, our average price has decreased as Mexico consistently floods the market with low priced, high volume commodities. Many retailers/wholesalers/distributors would prefer to have domestically grown produce, but only if the price is in line with Mexican pricing. If Mexico continues to flood our market with low prices due to their significantly lower costs, many more US growers will go out of business. If we don’t want to lose our domestic farmers of fresh produce, something must be done.
“I’m writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems more important now than ever that we ensure we have an economically strong and vital domestic supply of fresh food across all 50 states.”
– Anais Beddard, Lady Moon Farms, PA & Florida.
So, as the pandemic travels through, please support your local farms.
- To be sure of what you are buying, seek out Real Organic Project farms by visiting our website.
- Let the State Department of Agriculture know you support designating farmers' markets and farm stands as important food sources that should stay open.
- Ensure that the food is sold safely at those places by isolating the food from the customers, as they are doing at Full Belly.
- Make sure that farmworkers are designated as essential workers in our emergency economy.
- Grow your own victory garden. During WW2, American homeowners grew 40% of the produce in America.
- Stay well and be kind.