Farming is inherently unpredictable. From the severe storms that flooded some local farms last week, to the challenges of getting food from the farm to the public, farmers face risk every year. This year, COVID-19 has compounded that uncertainty.
Molly Nicholie, program director of ASAP’s Local Food Campaign, has been talking to local farmers about the difficult decisions they’re making this spring.
“This is a critical point where folks have to decide how many tomato plants to put in the ground,” she says. “Do I cut my losses and compost all of the started tomatoes in my greenhouse? Will there be a market for me to be able to sell it later?”
In order to mitigate uncertainty, local farmers often diversify their farm businesses by growing many different crops, sometimes raising animals as well, and selling to multiple outlets in case one dries up. There was no way to predict that those precautions wouldn’t be as effective this year.
“This virus has disrupted so many of our systems that risk management and trying to not put all your eggs in one basket is not necessarily helping as much. It’s not just the farmers market sales that are impacted, but also your restaurant sales, and also your u-pick sales. When everything is impacted, it makes it really hard for farmers to respond and shift,” she says.
ASAP’s Local Food Research Center surveyed the region’s farmers and other market vendors when the pandemic first began impacting the Southern Appalachians. Eighty percent of farms surveyed reported an immediate decrease in customers and sales due to the COVID-19 emergency. Two thirds reported that, if disruptions persist for several months, the long-term financial hardship would be severe enough to result in bankruptcy, business closure, or leaving farming altogether.
“We don’t know how long these economic impacts are going to last,” she says. “We definitely have a lot of farm businesses that are at stake, and this could be the year that they can’t recover from.”
Farmers reported some immediate needs: help transitioning to new outlets, such as online sales; marketing support as they communicate with the public about how to purchase their food; the need to keep farmers markets open and safe; and financial support through loans or grants.
In response, ASAP established the Appalachian Grown Farmer Relief Fund, which supports farms in a number of ways, including farm product packaging. Many farmers need more packaging materials, like wax boxes and produce bags, as they respond to public health requirements when selling directly to the public.
ASAP also launched the Farmers Market COVID-19 Response Grant. These funds can be used by farmers markets in the region to purchase items like hand sanitizer, caution tape, traffic cones, signs, and other supplies to keep shoppers and farmers safe at markets.
With these additional precautions, ASAP established a farmers market that maintains the highest public health standards which operates every Saturday and Thursday at A-B Tech Community College.
Many farmers still have perishable products that need to be harvested this spring, even though the restaurants and schools that buy from them are closed. In order to redirect this food to people in need, ASAP is helping make connections between those farms and community organizations working to alleviate hunger. As funds are available, ASAP will help cover the costs of these products so that food does not go to waste and farms can receive the income they need.
There are opportunities for the public to support these efforts as well. The relief fund is accepting donations, and there are actions community members can take each week to support local farmers.
“We can find the farm stand in our community that’s still open. We can find the farmers markets that are opening up for this spring, that are working out safe systems for consumers to go in. Consumers can sign up for a CSA. There’s a lot of farmers that are looking at reconnecting with folks through online or delivery options,” she says.
“Farmers are really shifting gears to try to connect more tightly with the community where we’re relying on consumers to really put those food dollars to work right here at home,” she adds.
It takes an entire community to build a resilient food system, especially during a time of crisis. ASAP will continue to work directly with farmers and the public to support local farms during this growing season and into the future.
We’ll bring you weekly updates on Growing Local about ways that farmers are coping and systems that are being built to sustain the local food community. More information about the new farmers markets and the Appalachian Grown Farmer Relief Fund can be found at www.asapconnections.org
Aired: April 20, 2020