by Tamara Scully

Aside from the threat to human health due to COVID-19, the virus is wreaking havoc on supply chains everywhere. Consumer demand for meat, as well as produce and other foodstuff, is high as people isolate at home, and panic buying has become the norm.

Yet those in the livestock industry, who sell cattle to these industrial meatpackers – who predominately supply grocery store chains, restaurants and food service kitchens – are facing massive declines in the price they are paid for their livestock, despite the unprecedented demand for meat.

Farmers direct marketing their meat and other products aren’t facing such dire circumstances. The demand for local meat has grown as supermarket butcher cases empty and meat is rationed by stores in many areas of the nation. In fact, local livestock producers – along with produce growers, those in the small grains supply chain and dairy farmers selling direct – are all in demand as the COVID-19 crisis keeps people at home for the immediate future.

Going local

“Consumers are turning in droves to local farmers for safe, fresh foods,” Dena Leibman, executive director of Future Harvest, said. “This pandemic is nothing short of a blaring wake-up call. We cannot depend on a global supply chain.”

The crisis has showed “the critical role our community plays in feeding our people,” Leibman told the small farmers who work with the organization to build a sustainable fish and farm food chain. The organization is focused on the Chesapeake Bay states of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Similar organization promoting local food systems are finding that this pandemic has been a rallying call for local food producers.

Supermarkets have, at least intermittently, been depleted of meat, dairy and produce, and have limited purchases to ensure supplies are available to all customers while they wait for deliveries from suppliers. Across the country, local food producers have been able to step up and meet the needs of their communities.

In northwestern New Jersey, farmers are working together to meet the intensified demand for food. While not much locally-grown produce is yet available so early in the growing season, many of the farmers who operate year-round farm markets use a small local distributor, who purchases directly from the nearby terminal markets when local crops are not available. They still have a steady supply of fruits and vegetables being delivered, and have been able to meet the increased community demand.

Storage apples remain available for fresh sales. Several area farms have value-added kitchens, producing soups, ice cream and more. A local dairy farm bottles milk and makes cheese. Louis Tommaso of LL Pittenger Farms has retail freezers in several of the area’s year-round farm market stands. Those stands sell other regional and local products, such as bread, cheese, pasta and honey and stock specialty pantry items.

Changing times

Tommaso and Devin Dalrymple, who operates her family’s Race Farm Market, both noted that so far, about 75% of the customers they’re seeing are regulars, who are stocking up on food and keeping them extraordinarily busy for this time of year. Another 15% of recent customers represent those he had served in the past but not seen recently, Tommaso said, while the remaining 10% are new. Both farms are taking phone and email orders, accepting phone payments and packaging boxes for customer pick-up to decrease face-to-face contact.

These strategies are new, to adapt to the need for social distancing. For those who do go into Race Farm’s store to shop, precautions are in place, including mandatory customer use of disposable gloves, keeping doors open to reduce surface touching and increase airflow and social distancing. Sanitization of the stores is a priority, to keep workers and shoppers healthy.

For farmer Emma Jagoz of Moon Valley Farms, the pandemic has caused changes in the way her Maryland farm operates. Typically, restaurant sales are their primary venue. They do have a seasonal CSA, but it is not their primary market.

“Most of our cash flow is from restaurants,” Jagoz said. “One hundred percent of our sales, January through April, are to restaurants. I knew that we needed somewhere for our vegetables to go.”

The farm is now gearing up for CSA sales, reaching out to established customers and soliciting new ones, opening the CSA season early and adding home delivery options. The farm also grows seedlings for other farmers, and has expanded to include growing for retail customers.

“Local is a safer option, now more than ever,” Jagoz said. Focusing on the CSA was needed to keep their truck drivers employed and keep the farm financially afloat.

Beckie and Jack Gurley of Calvert’s Gift Farm, also in Maryland, have a diversified income stream, serving CSA customers, restaurants and farmers markets. Restaurant sales are through Chesapeake Farm to Table, an online marketplace which acts as an aggregator for small farms in the region. There are already some home delivery customers on the platform. With restaurant closures, they are pivoting toward home delivery. Each farm will have to prepackage customer orders, which will be aggregated into a delivery box.

“People are looking to us for food,” Beckie Gurley said. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for as local farmers.”

Food safety

Contaminated surfaces and airborne contact are the primary concerns for farmers, who have to take extra precautions every step from harvest to sale.

“There is no indicator that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread through eating food that may contain small amounts of virus,” Food Safety Educator Lindsay Gilmour said.

Gilmour advised farmers that surfaces must be free of dirt before they can be sanitized. Gloves only work if they are used properly. Reusable gloves must be sanitized and kept clean between uses. At farm markets, a hand wash station should be set up for customers and used before the customer uses disposable gloves. Hand washing education should be provided to employees and customers.

Tools used to cut produce need to be disinfected between uses and stored in a clean environment. Any wax boxes that are reused should have clean plastic liners inserted. Reuse of cooler bags or other items not easily sanitized should be discontinued. Biodegradable plastic bags are probably the safest option for packaging orders.

Touch points from field to packing house to market must be routinely sanitized – eliminated altogether, if possible. Keeping phones out of workplaces, keeping doors open to prevent touching handles and other measures can be implemented to reduce contact surfaces. Five tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water are needed to kill COVID-19 on hard, non-porous surfaces.

Keep employees in packing houses separated, and limit employee/customer contact as much as possible. Gilmour recommended logging all customers to your farm stand, to better inform them if any COVID-19 concerns arise at the farm.

Revamping local food systems, which are served by shorter supply chains and a more direct link to the farm, may finally make sense to those who haven’t yet jumped onboard. It will take a rebuilding of local infrastructure and some ingenuity. Creating local food systems to directly serve communities has been an ongoing effort – many now feel its time has truly come.