Business: A silver lining for farmers in an uncertain time

  • Ferron Dooley Fairchild, an employee of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, brings flowers in last Tuesday morning, Sept. 29. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meghan Ecclesine, an employee, and Missy Bahret, a co owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, box orders from the preorder on line store. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hana Martin, an employee of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, spreads Winter Rye as a cover crop Tuesday morning, September, 29, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meghan Ecclesine, an employee, and Missy Bahret, a co-owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, box orders from the preorder online store. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ethan Markham, an employee of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, cultivates spinach. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary Francis of Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley unloads two truckloads of just-harvested butternut squash at a storage barn in Amherst on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • According to Hadley farmer Joe Czajkowski, much of his butternut squash will be made into noodles. Photographed at the Amherst storage barn on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 10/6/2020 4:36:50 PM

In March, when the pandemic hit our part of the world, the growing season had only just begun for most local farmers. The farms that were selling products at the time — year-round goods like meat and dairy, or a limited range of produce — lost winter farmers’ market, school and restaurant sales and had to make immediate and costly changes to their operations.

Certain farms suffered serious losses, like maple syrup producers that operate seasonal sugar shack restaurants and flower farms that saw widespread wedding cancellations. Still, the timing insulated many local farms from the earliest economic shocks of the pandemic, and what the pandemic would mean for local farms as the growing season progressed felt deeply uncertain.

As we moved into the spring, something unexpected happened: demand for local food and farm products exploded. A CISA survey, conducted this summer through a handful of local farms, found that 64% of the 800-plus respondents were buying more local food because of COVID-19, and 27% of respondents were new customers of the businesses from which they received the survey. Visits to CISA’s online guide to local food and farms skyrocketed 200% over the same period last year.

This shift has played out in a variety of different ways for farms. As the national meat supply chain was disrupted this spring, demand for local meat took off.

Mike Austin of Austin Brothers Valley Farm in Belchertown says, “This has sort of put us on the map. Demand was crazy in April and May, and now it’s settled a bit. We have a steady clientele who show up for meat every week. A lot more people are aware of us and we have new regulars, so in that sense it’s been very good.”

For some meat farmers, this increase in demand has caused other problems. There are a limited number of federally-inspected slaughterhouses in the region, which have slowed production in order to implement necessary safety measures.

Shannon Goddard of Wild Bramble Farm in Northfield says, “The pandemic has meant that we’ve sold more meat than ever this year, but we’ve had trouble getting dates to have our animals processed. We’re going to run out of pork sometime this winter, and we probably won’t have any more until next fall.” The farm plans to increase poultry and egg production to bridge the gap.

Many farms made major changes to their sales models this year, even as the uncertainty of the pandemic complicated decision-making. Hart Farm in Conway added spring and fall options to their home delivery farm share program and tripled the number of households they serve, while cutting back to just one farmers’ market.

Farmer Anna Meyer said, “It was a timing thing — we had so much demand for the CSA in the spring, and we weren’t sure what the farmers’ markets would look like this year. I imagine this is what we’ll do in the future, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself since we don’t know what people will want when the pandemic is over.”

Old Friends Farm in Amherst has built a whole new food hub: an online ordering platform that offers their own products along with an array of other local goods, distributed via several sites around the Valley.

Farmer Casey Steinberg says, “This has been like starting a whole new business — it’s been really interesting and also very complex.” This new outlet, in addition to an increase in wholesale orders, has helped to cover a loss in farmers’ market sales, but not without reduced profit margins on some products and a lot of staff time to build it.

In the face of this year’s challenges, Casey says, “We’re so grateful to our community for showing up and supporting farms. It feels more important than ever to be providing jobs, and to be providing the community with food.”

Larger wholesale farms have found new opportunities in shifting markets, as well. Joe Czajkowski of Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley has significant relationships with UMass and the Chicopee Public Schools, among many other larger buyers. He says, “The biggest hit we’ve taken is the schools, but a lot of the food they would have taken is going to the federal food boxes (the Farmers to Families Food Box Program). We’ve been very grateful for how the federal government and the food banks have stepped up, and our sales to supermarkets have also been very good. I’d like to see the schools come back, but my mother used to say that every problem is an opportunity in work clothes, so we just make things work for the new ways of selling.”

Farmers are doing what they’ve always done: growing food and figuring out how to get it to people. This adaptation requires an immense amount of work and risk-taking, and so far, our communities have shown up for them.

Still, the real financial reckoning won’t be clear for months, and farmers are continuing to make plans for an uncertain future. You can help ensure that their tremendous efforts pay off, and that they are still here to provide food for our communities, by choosing local!

Visit buylocalfood.org to find farmers’ markets, farm stands, home delivery, grocery stores that source local food, and more.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).


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