Food

“We’re in a Save-Our-Farm-From-Collapsing Mode”

Farmers can’t keep up with surging demand for local produce, but they’re still struggling to replace lost revenue.

A man in a hoodie, face mask, and gloves hands over a bucket of zucchini to gloved hands. He's standing in a field beside zucchini plants.
Farmworkers harvest zucchini in Florida City, Florida, on April 1. The farm has had to throw away crops in recent weeks since restaurants started shuttering.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Business was slow at the Union Square farmers market in New York City last week, which is why Zaid Kurdieh had time to talk. Over the past month, he’s been working 17-hour days to change the entire business model of Norwich Meadows Farm, the organic farm he owns with his wife upstate. The old model was no longer cutting it: Their farm stand, where the Kurdiehs do almost 40 percent of their business, hasn’t been drawing enough customers. Most of the rest of their revenue came from selling produce to stalwarts of the city’s restaurant scene: Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill, Eleven Madison Park.* Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. “We’re in a save-our-farm-from-collapsing mode,” he said.

But farmers like Kurdieh may have some hope: The pandemic seems to have made people more thoughtful about where their food comes from and how many steps in the supply chain it takes for groceries to reach them. Demand for community-supported agriculture shares and one-off deliveries from local farms has increased rapidly since quarantines started. But farms are struggling to meet this demand. Most don’t have the infrastructure, even as they desperately need the new source of revenue.

In general, food production in the U.S. is tailored to big purchasers such as restaurants and wholesale distributors. The collapse of the restaurant industry in recent weeks has left farmers—particularly small ones with low profit margins—at risk. According to a report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, local and regional farms could see a decline in sales from March to May of nearly $689 million. Suddenly, food needs to be redirected from restaurants to homes and grocery stores. “The scale of this shift is extraordinary. It’s actually breathtaking,” said T. Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, an American University professor who researches agricultural policy and agrarian politics. As Kurdieh put it, “In the end, everybody’s got to eat. So it’s just a matter of: How are we going to go about providing that food?”

Some of it is going to waste. Produce farms that cater primarily to restaurants, for instance, are seeing their harvests rot. “The model in that business is ‘sell it or smell it,’ ” said Daniel Sumner, the director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. Dairy is another sector that’s facing large amounts of waste, in part because milk is so perishable. Dairy farms throughout the country have been dumping milk for the past month.

Other farmers are working to develop home-delivery systems or expand their CSAs on the fly. Dena Leibman, the director of Future Harvest, a group that supports farmers in the Chesapeake region, told the Washington Post she’s been overwhelmed by the interest in local food from people who aren’t just part of the typical CSA crowd. Community-based food sources have traditionally been limited by price and availability—CSAs require a large upfront payment, and farmers market hours are limited. The pandemic is now pushing local farms to become more accessible—to attract more people than, as Sumner puts it, foodies who have discretionary income.

But the logistics of connecting with customers remains a major hurdle, even for farms with established online ordering. Nichols Farm in Marengo, Illinois, has opened a “virtual farmers market,” with home deliveries three days of the week for a flat fee. Todd Nichols, a second-generation owner of the farm, said that he’s already bought two new smaller delivery vans and spent thousands of dollars enhancing the farm’s website. Much of the farm’s staff, even those who worked desk jobs, have taken on new roles to execute home deliveries. The changes have left Nichols overwhelmed, but he says he needs to make up for plummeting food service industry and farmers market sales, which normally account for 90 percent of his business. Kurdieh’s farm is revitalizing its CSA by increasing the number of shares on offer—they’ve dwindled from 2,000 to 800 in the past five years, as more farms in the area launched CSA programs—and has started offering à la carte delivery boxes. Kurdieh has hired a few people he knows around the city to help get hundreds of boxes a week out, as well as professional tricycle deliverers. “We’re trying not to leave any stone unturned,” he said. Even the rare farms that already have a robust home-delivery fleet are overwhelmed. South Mountain Creamery, a dairy farm in Middletown, Maryland, has stopped accepting new customers and delivering certain items.

Another route is to sell to grocery stores. But these sales require making contacts at the stores, as well as new packaging and retooled production lines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working to tweak regulations so that food can move into these new supply chains, Graddy-Lovelace said. For example, it’s lifted certain labeling requirements for eggs that had applied to grocery sales but not to restaurant ones. But panic buying has slowed, and even if you can’t nab a bag of flour before another stress-baker, stores have fewer bare shelves than they did a couple of weeks ago. (“I’ve been stunned at how little disruption there was,” Sumner noted.) Groceries simply may not need farmers’ surplus, especially the large chains that already have contracts with industrial farms in the U.S. and abroad.

Still, people are starting to care more about how they source their food and whether their communities can provide stability in times of crisis. “I think the key thing is that consumers will realize how vulnerable our food system is, how our cities are a few days away from not having food,” Graddy-Lovelace said. “There’s not stockpiles, there’s not grain reserves. There’s not a kind of peri-urban agriculture that can supply a lot of the fresh produce if the supply chains break down.” Turning locally for food—whether that’s through a CSA, one-off deliveries, or local food hubs—is a way of finding security amid mass uncertainty during a pandemic. “It also gives you a sense of community,” said Sumner. “That, I think, is an emotional connection that helps people connect to the food system.”

Higher demand for local agriculture, however, won’t be enough to make up for small farms’ losses. Sumner estimates that about a quarter of farm output is being redirected away from food service and toward grocery stores and home delivery, but we don’t know the exact number. (As Graddy-Lovelace pointed out, the two Department of Agriculture divisions responsible for this research lost 75 percent of their staff last year when the Trump administration relocated both offices to Kansas City.) And even though the stimulus package allots as much as $23 billion in assistance for farmers, it’s unclear how that money will be distributed. There are serious concerns in the agriculture community that the federal government will fund industrial farm operations rather than family farms that feed regional communities. Graddy-Lovelace believes it will end up “exacerbating disparities among farmers” by going to “largely white farmers, largely male farmers, largely the big commodity crop growers.”

Whether these changes will fundamentally alter the American food system is unclear for everyone involved, though Graddy-Lovelace hopes the pandemic “will be a general wake-up to the need to regionalize and localize … to provide resilience to events like this as well as to climate catastrophes.” As for the small farmers who are redefining their entire businesses, they seem to hope some of the changes will stick around in one form or another. “Because I’m investing 17 hours a day, seven days a week now and changing my model, I would hope to God that this is not going to go ‘poof’ after this is done,” Kurdieh said. “But there are no guarantees in life.”

Correction, April 13, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Gramercy Tavern.