There are hundreds of farmers and local food producers in the Appalachian region, and while each farm has its own challenges and opportunities, there are some commonalities that can be tracked from year to year.
ASAP’s Local Food Research Center was established in 2012 to collect information about local farms in order to study the role and importance of building strong local and regional food systems. Amy Marion, program coordinator for ASAP’s Local Food Research Center, explains why it’s helpful to collect data and use research to look at the big picture.
“It helps us to really understand what’s going on in our region in terms of local food and farming. It directs ASAP’s work and gives us feedback on the work that we’re doing and the impact that it’s having,” she says.
A cornerstone of this research is the yearly survey of farms in the region, which includes Western North Carolina as well as surrounding counties in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. Farmers are surveyed about their farm demographics, their market outlets, their sales that year, and more.
“This survey and the fact that we do it every year really helps us understand the bigger picture of what farmers in our region are experiencing and how that fluctuates and really helps us to target our support in a way that will have the most beneficial impact,” she says.
The 2020 survey was revealing because it documented a year that was inherently unpredictable and full of difficult decisions. In addition to the annual survey, ASAP sent out a COVID-19 impact survey in late March to better understand farmers’ needs and concerns at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Farmers were really concerned about the impact of the pandemic and that it would be really disastrous. When we asked them what they thought the potential long term impact would be if the pandemic and these lockdowns lasted for six months, which would take us through the majority of the growing and selling season, two thirds reported potential financial hardship, including bankruptcy and just getting out of farming altogether,” she says.
Farmers that sold primarily to restaurants were especially concerned about the future of their businesses.
“A lot of restaurants closed or had to scale back significantly, so 74% of farmers who typically sell to those restaurants reported decreased restaurant sales,” she says.
Nathan Vannette of Growing Green Family Farms was one of those produce farmers who relied on restaurant sales.
“Pre-covid about 80 percent of our sales were direct to restaurants and restaurants were one of those industries which were hit so very hard, especially early on. Within two weeks of things starting to shut down, that number dropped to less than seven percent. So you’re talking about a 73% reduction in our sales output, which is challenging because we have crops in the ground at that time of the year, and we were really building up to what was looking like another great year,” he says.
Luckily, Growing Green Family Farms had already diversified their business. Although restaurants were the bulk of their sales, they had a year-round CSA and sold at a farmers market during the summer. When the pandemic started they joined an online farmers market that delivered to customers’ homes.
“Having an online website presence where people could search for us, find out who we are, and then be able to purchase through our online portal, enabled us to greatly increase our CSA right from the get go. What was incredible is not only did we replace all of the potential loss of losing those restaurant clients, but we actually surpassed the quantity of sales. So that was just incredible, especially since it was a time of great uncertainty and we just didn’t know how we were going to weather it,” he says.
Other farmers in the region had similar experiences.
“The survey shows us that a lot of farmers actually saw an increase in demand for local food and farm experiences because of the pandemic,” Amy says.
While most farms seemed to maintain, or even increase sales, they also saw steep increases in costs due to the pandemic, ranging from labor to packaging. But despite a tenuous year, with amazing efforts to shift gears and adapt to changing markets, many farmers were feeling more optimistic about their farm’s viability in the most recent survey compared to the beginning of the pandemic.
“We asked the same questions again in the annual survey at the end of the year, and we see that this disastrous result didn’t really happen for most folks. Instead, 85% reported that their farm business would remain viable even if restrictions continued into 2021,” she says.
Only seven percent reported that they were planning to significantly scale down or pause their farming operation this year because of the pandemic.
“So we saw a pretty big shift,” she says. “That’s really because farmers put in a lot of work to make that shift happen and adapt and it really paid off.”
As farmers shifted to direct sales, joined online marketplaces, and adjusted to new farmers market procedures, their commitment to connecting the community through local food remained strong.
“I’d say that the farming community is very resilient. Farmers are really dedicated to getting local food into the community and making sure everyone is fed,” she says.
As the 2021 growing season gets underway, farmers like Nathan Vanette are feeling hopeful. He says that as restaurants operate at higher capacities and if the demand for CSAs and farmers markets remains steady, 2021 could be their best year yet.
“I think we do tend to be a more optimistic breed for the most part. You almost have to be with farming, like you can’t necessarily control the sunshine, the weather, the soil temperatures. For the most part, you just have to try to be optimistic. I think that optimism continues to fuel us and enable us to weather adverse conditions as they come,” he says.
Learn more about ASAP’s Local Food Research Center and read the 2020 Appalachian Grown survey at www.asapconnections.org.
Aired: March 29, 2021