Resourceful farmers are looking for alternate streams of income as restaurants temporarily disappear.

By Gabriella Gershenson
April 06, 2020
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The stay-at-home orders that swept the country in March and effectively forced the closure of the country’s restaurant industry have translated to economic disaster, not only for restaurants, but for many of the farmers that supply them. Zaid Kurdieh, an owner of Norwich Meadows Farm in Chenango County, New York, lost 60 percent of his business when the restaurants that he supplied abruptly shuttered. Overnight, he was forced to shift his focus from stocking high-end restaurant kitchens to contemplating a completely new business model. "Normally, I’m looking further down the road, but something can change 15 minutes from now that pushes the farm in a different direction," says Kurdieh. "There is zero compass to rely on."

Like scores of farmers facing similarly confounding circumstances, Kurdieh is forging new ways to connect to consumers, and fast. He is ramping up sales for his CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which customers buy shares in a farm and reap the dividends in the form of weekly hauls of produce. In previous years, Kurdieh's CSA memberships were in decline. Now he’s teamed up with Our Harvest, an online platform that connects farms to consumers, and has been delivering boxes of produce to homes and pickup locations in greater New York since late March. 

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Efforts like this are underway around the country. New York City Greenmarkets are collaborating with the app company Fellow Farmer to facilitate pre-paid orders and local deliveries. Chicago’s Green City Market developed an app that offers contactless delivery from 15 farmers and counting. Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has partnered with home delivery services in New York City, in addition to their own CSA. At The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, a new "contactless drive-thru" market recently launched—and Market Director Leigh Sloss-Corra is sharing learnings on the model with Farmers Market Coalition members across the country. In California, at the Santa Cruz Community Farmers' Market, Dirty Girl Produce started a CSA that allows customers to order online for pickup or home delivery. Other vendors, says Nesh Dhillon, Executive Director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets, are following suit. "I am getting calls from people in the community who are willing to pay a fee to get food delivered to their zone," he says.

Dan Honig, the owner of Happy Valley Meat Company, which buys whole animals from small Pennsylvania farms and sells butchered cuts to top restaurants in New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Boston, lost 80% of his business overnight—over 120 restaurants. "Once the shutdown happened, a lot of our farmers got scared," says Honig. He promptly created an online shop and continues to supply a half-dozen retail clients that have grown "like crazy." Though Honig was able to sell 70% of the meat that he normally buys from the farmers in the first week following the closures and 100% the next week, he’s concerned about what will happen after the panic shopping dies down. "There’s a lot of uncertainty right now," he says.

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Perhaps the greatest challenge farmers face is trying to solve these problems in real time. "What I’ve been hearing from farmers is they have to rapidly adapt marketing strategies, whether it's going online or finding other outlets for produce that would have gone to restaurants,"  says Sarah Brown, owner of Diggin’ Roots Farm in Molalla, Oregon, and director of education and advocacy at Oregon Tilth, a sustainable agriculture non-profit. Last week, when Oregon Tilth hosted a webinar on online platforms that could support direct marketing for farmers, an unprecedented 600 people registered in two days.

Farmers must also contend with the new reality of social distancing and maintaining already rigorous food safety standards to protect both its workers and the public. "The one message that we are trying to reinforce for producers and consumers is that there is no evidence of foodborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2," says Ethan Grunberg, a regional vegetable crop specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program, who gives direct support to farms on food safety compliance. "We are trying to reemphasize best practices of other contamination that has started foodborne illness." Particularly important, says Grunbeg, is enforcing distancing protocols at the market and on the job. "What a lot of farms are thinking about is how to try to implement all of the recommendations to avoid transmission on the farm, and of how to minimize impact if someone on the farm was to get sick," he says.

Now is a crucial moment for many farmers, who are about to or have just entered planting season. They are deciding what to plant, and how much to invest in farming when the future is so dim. But there are reasons for optimism. According to both Dhillon and Michael Hurwitz, director of the New York City Greenmarkets, even with social distancing measures in place, the markets have thrived and seen record-breaking sales. For many, the public’s interest in reconnecting with farmers and the food that they grow represents a silver lining. "It is really exciting, and the local food community is heartened and encouraged and inspired by this interest," says Brown, who sold out her own CSA in record time. "It's hard to think long-term right now because we are in the middle of this crisis, but there is a real desire and hope to think strategically, maintain this interest beyond this crisis, and use it as an opportunity to change our food systems."