Written by Nicole Oveisi, Fair Farms Intern
Since March, challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed many flaws in our food system. From empty shelves in grocery stores to meatpacking facility closures, consumers have become ever more conscious of the complicated system that brings food to our plates. Farmers around the country have also had to deal with the ramifications of working in the midst of these challenging times. Fair Farms decided to reach out to a few of it’s local partners to see how they were fairing in light of the global pandemic. Of the three partners Fair Farms spoke to, processing plant issues and an increased customer-base were prominent results of COVID-19.
In trying to curb the spread of the virus, many smaller local processing plants have been shut down, making it difficult for livestock farmers to get their meat processed. Mary Bowen of Prosperity Acres in Calvert County told us about her issues with getting her meat processed. She raises cattle and goats for both meat and dairy products. Due to the state facility closures, Mary now has to drive three hours to another processing plant. She believes regulations need to change as a response to the pandemic—to sell retail, meat must be USDA inspected and certified, and that can’t happen at a state-run facility. She also told us that it is taking much longer to even schedule time at the processing plant. While she did sell out of all her meat, waiting so long for her next appointment means more operational costs for the animals still on the farm. Nick Bailey of Grand View Farm in Forest Hill, Maryland also noted the processing closures to be challenge. He told us that because of long wait times to get into a facility, he cannot serve his customers efficiently—some customers are waiting until August and September for their meat.
Another result of this pandemic has been a shift in consumerism from big box grocery stores to local and regional farmers markets. While smaller farms have been able to adapt to such an uptick in sales, it can be difficult to sustain such an increase in volume. Joan Norman of One Straw Farm in Northern Baltimore County let us know that while her restaurant sales slowed, her CSA sales have increased dramatically. Joan has always felt it was her personal responsibility to be able to feed the people of her community; she has been preparing for something like this for years, and now she is responding by feeding those in need. Mary and Nick also noted increased sales since the start of the pandemic. For Nick at Grand View Farm, an increase in sales was viable due to the forethought to invest in a robust website that allows online orders to be processed and packed efficiently.
We asked our Fair Farms partners if they had any advice for other farmers struggling during this time. Mary said her advice to other farmers is to keep asking, “How can I best serve my customers?” She also let us know that she sends out a newsletter every two weeks to all her customers as a way to communicate what is happening on the farm and to build closer relationships. Joan at One Straw Farm, who has been farming for almost 40 years, gave the advice, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” and “Do what you know you can do. And don’t fail.” Nick from Grand View Farm had a different view. He wants to encourage farmers to take a look at the future of their business instead of just relying on what they know.
As America deals with flattening the curve, we hope that this new awareness of the resilience of our local, sustainable farming community will continue post-pandemic. As farmers and small businesses everywhere gear up and adapt to unprecedented times, it is our duty as consumers to continue propping up local and regional farmers and advocate for change in the food system.