Pandemic hurting 'local foods' farms
Social distancing creates uncertainty for farmers markets.
Amber Lockhart is trying hard to stay optimistic . But she can't stop from wondering how coronavirus and social distancing will affect her family business, which raises and sells local foods.
With restaurants closed, some sales have been lost already. "And just don't know what's going to happen with farmers markets," a major source of sales, said Lockhart, who along with her husband, Ross, operates Heart and Soil Farm near Grandin, N.D. They describe their farm as raising "a diversified mix of fruits and vegetables using sustainable, organic practices."
The Lockharts aren't alone. Across America, local foods farmers wonder and worry about the pandemic will affect their businesses.
But while the pandemic brings economic pain and peril for producers of local foods, it also might hold promise. As Brian DeVore with the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project put it, "People are spending more time at home. And they're eating more at home" — which at least in theory might encourage them to eat more local foods.
Local foods are defined in many ways, perhaps most commonly as ones consumed within 100 miles of where they're raised. Whatever the definition, they're a big and growing market, accounting for an estimated $11.8 billion in sales in 2017, according to information from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Nationwide, farms that raise and sell local foods stand to lose an estimated $688.7 million in sales and suffer a payroll decline of $103.3 million from March to May 2020, according to a study by the coalition.
"Social distancing measures such as the closure of universities, schools, restaurants and local food markets (e.g., farmers markets, food stands) will result in significant shifts in where food is sold or acquired, and subsequently, markets for farmers and ranches," the study said.
The majority of that loss will come in farmers markets, with sales to K-12 schools, restaurants and other institutions also taking hits, according to the study. The coalition noted that March to May is early in the season for farmers markets in much of the country, holding down the estimated loss.
Also, March to May represents the smallest overall portion of annual farm-to-school purchases, which also helps to hold down the estimated loss, the coalition said.
Financial assistance is available for at least some producers of local foods hurt by the pandemic.
Local foods farmers are included in the $9.5 billion federal aid package for U.S. agriculture.
And the American Farmland Trust has launched a Farmers Relief Fund that will provide $1,000 grants to small and medium-sized farms that sell at farmers markets or to schools, stores, caterers or restaurants or makers who use farm products. Applications are open through April 23; more information at farmland.org .
The Land Stewardship Project urges consumers to consider buying local foods from businesses in their area, which would help those businesses reduce economic loss. The organization has released its 2020 edition of the Twin Cities, Minnesota & Western Wisconsin Community Supported Agriculture, which lists more than 40 farms that provide vegetables, meat and other products.
To see the list: landstewardshipproject.org.
In a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture farm, consumers pay a fee and in return receive food grown on the farm, The comes in a variety of forms, including delivery or pick-up. Some CSAs offer options in which their members can become involved in operating the farm, especially at harvest.
Some CSAs have added facilities that allow them to raise food both earlier and later in the growing season, which extends the period in which members can get food from them, said Devore with the Land Stewardship Project.
Local foods are sold in many ways, of which CSAs are only one.
Heart and Soil Farm, which is not a CSA, expected to rely heavily on sales at upcoming farmers markets this year. Now, "There's just so much uncertainty," Amber Lockhart said.