Farm stand in spring

Blog | March 19, 2020

How will COVID-19 Affect My Local Farmers and Food?

by Jennifer Fahy

On Sunday, I drove out to the farm I’ve supported through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program the past few years. I wanted to stock the fridge as calls for “social distancing” were ramping up due to COVID-19.

I call it my farm and the women who own and operate it, Kate and Jude, my farmers. That’s how strongly I feel about my connection to them and the place their farm holds in my life. These farmers literally sustain me—physically and emotionally. In addition to the fruits and veggies my family eats during the growing season, I buy my vegetable seedlings from them to plant in my community garden plot. As my plants grow and I begin to harvest my own food, I report on their progress to my farmers at the weekly farmers’ market. I say—not without pride—things like, “I don’t need more tomatoes this week because my garden is doing so well,” as I get a couple more anyway for lunch after the market.

I have been aware of my privilege to have these experiences—to afford the fee for my community garden that gives me room to grow in the city and a beautiful place to enjoy nature; to have the free time to garden; to afford a CSA share, paying a hefty price up front to guarantee fresh, healthy food all growing season; to know and consider friends the farmers who work so hard to bring good food to my family and families across this city. I am more aware of it now than ever. When my partner wrote the check on Sunday for our participation in the 2020 CSA, I felt excitement for the harvests to come, and gratitude that we can view this payment not just as a necessity, but as an investment that also brings us great joy.

We should all be so fortunate. We should all be able to afford this kind of food. And by that, I mean healthy food, grown with care for ourselves and our soil and water, and from our own community. The money we spend on our CSA doesn’t enrich a corporation, but goes into the commons of our own community—helping my farmers afford the land they farm and the labor they rely on, helping to keep farmland productive and out of risk of development, and helping to strengthen our local economy.

Most of us understand that we don’t all have this privilege. And now more than ever, in this time of COVID-19, we are seeing that reality in a very stark light. The thing is, we could all afford to support local farmers and eat healthy food if our farm and food system, and the policies that hold it up, prioritized that. Access to healthy, farm-fresh food is a right, not a privilege. If anything good can come of this disaster, perhaps it will help us all better understand and fight for that.

We need farmers and we need good food. It may be that this crisis makes that statement truer than ever before.

My farmers, as I call them, were grateful for the cash infusion (albeit small in their overall operations) this early spring. They’ve spent plenty to get things rolling for the 2020 season—having already purchased seeds and inputs and paid other expenses like insurance, payroll, supplies and more. Last year was a good year in the Northeast in terms of their production, unlike the experiences of farmers in the Midwest, Plains and Southeast, or the farmers in the West who suffered from drought and fires. But an early spring and unusually warm winter bring questions about how this growing season will go. My farmers told me they’re already seeing weeds in the fields that they typically don’t see until May. Impacts of climate change are so prevalent—and impactful—on farms across the country. And now, in addition, farmers are facing this pandemic.

Sharing Questions and Risk

As we passed our CSA check across the 6-foot distance we’d been holding, as advised by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), each of us recognized that the bountiful harvest we all pictured in our heads may not come to fruition. The unknown answers to questions about what this virus could mean swirled. Would my farmers and their employees stay healthy to do the work of farming? Would there eventually be a shutdown that would prevent my farmers from reaching their farm? Like many young farmers, they lease their land, and travel a distance to get to it each day. Would their employees be able to come to work to complete the endless To Do list for spring planting? For now, they were still making sales of their storage crops and crops they’d grown throughout winter in the greenhouse, but would they be able to afford to keep their staff on during a national crisis?

Shouldering a tiny part of the burden of these questions is part of the risk of being a CSA member—you share the risks of farming with your farmers. But it only seems fair, don’t you think?

Across the country, the outlets where farmers sell their food are at risk of closing. Farmers markets are making tough decisions about how to navigate the current crisis. Some are being forced to close as bans on social gatherings present obstacles, while other states are recognizing farmers markets and farmers as essential services that can continue to remain open. Taken as whole, local and regional markets—including farmers’ markets, farm to school programs, food hubs that serve wholesale markets and restaurants—could see nearly $690 million lost in sales and the American economy could see up to $1.32 billion lost from March to May 2020 from this sector. While many farmers, like mine, are getting creative, making online orders possible with at-home delivery, we need to take big measures to protect these critical sources of healthy food, employment, community welfare and local economic activity. Our farmers and ranchers provide an essential service, there is no question.

What You Can Do

If you have the ability to send your farmer some love and financial support via an online order or even through a CSA subscription, please do! If you can go further and purchase a share they can distribute to a family in need, you’re doubling your efforts to support a farmer and benefiting people who struggle to access good food. And if you don’t have a “my farmer” already, it’s a great time to make that happen.

We’re all in this together; we’re all facing this disaster. But the reality of farmers facing major impacts and how that affects our food supply is truly terrifying. For farmers who rely on farmers’ markets and other direct sales, closed markets and restaurants could put them out of business. We need farmers and we need good food. It may be that this crisis makes that statement truer than ever before.

What Happens Next?

Farm Aid and our partners are in touch with several members of Congress regarding legislation currently in the works to provide assistance to farmers facing challenges like these and to crop, dairy and livestock farmers facing entirely different sets of challenges. We will keep you informed about those challenges and actions you can take to support legislative efforts and farmers in your community.

PS

If you’re looking for a way to support your local farm without cash right now, Kate and Jude say, “We’ve been getting so many simple kindnesses sent our way. Huge waves from people driving by. Notes taped to doors when we drop off. Facebook and Instagram comments that are kind and supportive. All those little things are really helping us feel supported by the community, which is wonderful in a stressful time.”

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