Every year, farmers rely on a network of resource providers to help them navigate the challenges of farming. NC State Cooperative Extension is one of these critical resources, answering questions and helping farmers troubleshoot everything from pest management to food safety and processing.
Extension also hosts field days at local farms, 4-H programs for youth, and other educational activities that have been hosted in person since cooperative extensions were founded in 1914.
This year, COVID-19 has not only changed how they offer their services, but also the kinds of support that farmers need in different parts of the state.
“What we’re doing in the West is not the same as what they’re doing in the Piedmont. The needs of COVID for a grower in McDowell County, right now they’re peaking with their wholesale crops. When COVID hit, those wholesale farmers weren’t affected as much except for with labor,” says Craig Mauney, a NC Cooperative agent who specializes in commercial vegetable and fruit production in the Western region of the state.
He says providing information about labor and farm safety practices has become especially important during COVID.The agency started by putting a wealth of resources online that were prepared by NC State University experts. These fact sheets include best practices for cleaning and disinfection, how to prepare for a COVID outbreak, what to do if a farmer or farm worker has symptoms of COVID.
The most critical online resources are supplemented by socially-distanced training in person. Protecting farm workers is a high priority, so extension is offering food and farm safety training in Spanish to 200 farmworkers who are trained in socially-distant groups of 10 people over the course of two days.
Another initiative is providing masks and hand sanitizer to farms and farmstands. Last week Craig brought supplies to a farmstand in Highlands that distributes fruit in two states. He says many farms in the region are in need of more supplies as the pandemic continues.
Extension is also working to adapt production workshops into virtual trainings. Currently Craig is partnering with ASAP on a series of live online workshops in the western part of the state. Extension is also adapting its field day programs where farmers visit each other’s farms to gain knowledge and build community connections.
“We’re going to do it this year virtually, so we’re kicking our butts trying to get that done. Someone will be in the field with a camera and then we’ll move over to the next field,” he says.
In spite of all these adaptations and the urgency of disseminating safety information, Craig is seeing more collaboration between farmers.
“The other thing that’s happening right now that I haven’t seen in my career, which is wonderful, I’m seeing more farmers aggregate together,” he says. “I had a call this morning asking ‘Do you have somebody that has organic tomatoes? I can start adding to my box to help another farmer.’”
Craig also worked with a blueberry farmer in Alexander County who planned to offer u-pick, but was deterred by COVID. Instead, she partnered with other local fruit farmers to share labor and resources. They sold the fruit together on the wholesale market. Craig has been encouraging these kinds of partnerships for years and says farmers are becoming more collaborative in response to COVID.
“We’re more comfortable when we have community. We’ve separated ourselves from community and I think it’s the community coming back together in a different way. To me, it’s like wow, I tried to get farmers to aggregate and work together, and they don’t. So we’re seeing that a little more,” he says.
Find a range of resources for farmers on both NC Extension and ASAP’s websites. Community members can find ways to support these efforts and engage with local agriculture during COVID-19 at asapconnections.org.