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Maryland’s small farmers deal with the early economic impact of coronavirus

The tulips are starting to bloom, thousands of them, in wild colors ranging from brilliant orange to pink and burgundy. In normal years the flowers grown at Two Boots Farm in Hampstead would make bouquets for weddings and for restaurant tables, or be sold in bunches at farmers markets.

But weddings and other events have been cancelled en mass in the wake of a global coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants are closed, with government officials advising against close contact between people. The opening date for the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar, the city’s largest farmers market, has been postponed indefinitely.

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“Basically all my sales outlets,” said farmer Elisa Lane, owner of Two Boots Farm, which operates a stand at the Farmers’ Market & Bazaar, also known as the JFX market, each year. She and other farmers are scrambling to overhaul their business models in a time of pandemic, exploring ways to sell to individual consumers and in some cases, rethinking what they should grow.

It’s just one way the coronavirus pandemic is expected to disrupt agriculture — a $3 billion industry in Maryland alone.

“The coronavirus will impact the entire agriculture industry large and small," says Benjamin Beale, who works with farmers as an educator with University of Maryland Extension in St. Mary’s County. “How much? I think it’s still up in the air right now.”

He pointed to commodity markets for corn, soy beans, wheat and barley, where prices have taken a substantial hit over the last month and a half. “I think its fair to say that all farmers are very nervous right now about where all markets are heading."

Until this week, restaurant sales made up about 90% of the business at Chesapeake Farm to Table, a cooperative made up of approximately 25 farmers in the region, including some in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The group’s client list reads like a hot list of Baltimore’s best restaurants: Clavel, Ida B’s Table and Woodberry Kitchen, to name a few.

Since the restaurant shutdown, Beckie Gurley, who runs the cooperative with her husband, has spent hours on the phone with her software company to tweak the group’s website to accept more orders from individual consumers. “In a day we had to switch gears — from the restaurant to the home customer." She also owns Calvert’s Gift Farms, a certified organic farm in Sparks. “We doubled our orders this week from last week... and it’s to a completely different customer type.”

“Do I have any hair left? The answer is no,” Gurley said Wednesday.

A few Baltimore restaurants such as Well Crafted Kitchen in Medfield have agreed to become designated pickup spots for produce, an approach that allows individuals to place orders without abiding by a $75 minimum Gurley usually requires for free delivery.

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So far, so good. “This week, home sales have made up for my restaurant losses,” she said Thursday in between deliveries, dropping off sausage, mushrooms, eggs, artichokes, and “cheese, cheese, cheese, oh my God, cheese.”

At Christy Ottinger’s Kitchen Girl Farm near Cockeysville, orders for fresh eggs have been trending downward for weeks as restaurant owners braced for a decline in business. But her 600 chickens didn’t stop laying — about one per day. Ottinger, who also works with Chesapeake Farm to Table, is using the restaurants that once bought her eggs to sell her produce. Customers picking up carryout at Clavel, Noona’s and Well Crafted Kitchen can pick up a dozen fresh eggs, faint blue and speckled brown, with their orders.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts announced that they were postponing the opening date for the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar, originally scheduled for April 5, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The market usually takes place on Sundays beneath the JFX in Downtown Baltimore. With 5,000 visitors during normal times, the market walks “the line between being an event and being a food hub,” said Tracy Baskerville, communications director for BOPA. Many come to socialize as much as to grocery shop.

Whether to close farmers markets or to keep them open as a food source has been a issue across the country as officials balance concerns about food access with the need for social distancing. In Los Angeles, officials have allowed outdoor markets to continue, with certain restrictions in place. A large farmers market in Houston is slated to continue in the city. The Maryland Department of Agriculture issued a statement Thursday requesting that farmers markets be allowed to remain open during the state of emergency, since they play a “critical role" in providing food to people, especially those who live in food deserts or rely on SNAP benefits.

BOPA’s decision didn’t sit well with Gurley.

“It’s unfair to the small producers that rely on farmers markets," Gurley said. “I am just as important as a food purveyor as the Giant is."

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At farmers markets that do remain open, like one in Takoma Park, Gurley plans to take safety measures including keeping produce in bags and having one person handle money and another handle food. In Baltimore, the 32nd Street Farmers Market continues to operate, according to the group’s website. A few others, like ones in Druid Hill and Govanstown, don’t begin until June.

Still, Baskerville hopes that as the season progresses — and more produce starts coming in at area farms — the market beneath the JFX will find a way to open. "We are also being optimistic,” she said. “We haven’t cancelled the market for this season at all.”

Being early in the season also allows farmers time to rethink their growing plans. Smaller farmers may be able to adapt more easily to changes in the market. Lane, who typically specializes in flowers is pivoting her growing strategy to focus on produce that she thinks will be needed more in times of isolation, rather than flowers.

That approach wouldn’t be feasible for a larger farmer, said Beale. He recently spoke to another wholesale flower grower on the Eastern Shore who supplies blooms for weddings and other events: “His business over the last two weeks has just disappeared.”

Another blow for farms is likely to come in the form of a labor shortage, says Patty Lovera, policy director for the Organic Farmers Association. The U.S. State Department of State has suspended visa processing in Mexico because of the pandemic, and American farmers are bracing for a massive labor shortage. “The food system runs on immigrant labor,” Lovera said.

Some small farmers on the Eastern Shore have actually seen a growth in business in recent weeks, with grocery stores pillaged and consumers looking to buy local meats and cheeses.

Chesapeake Bay Farms in Pocomoke, Maryland is four miles from a major highway, “the middle of nowhere,” says owner Laura Holland. But in recent days and weeks they’ve had so many individual visitors coming by to purchase bottled milk, butter and cheese that Holland decided to open their rural shop nearly a month early to meet the increased demand. They’ve also seen a huge growth in home delivery orders — a combination of people looking to avoid the mayhem of supermarkets and existing customers who are quarantined at home. Holland hopes the increased business will offset the drop in restaurant sales. “One thing goes down, the other takes off,” she said.

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She and other farmers interviewed expressed hope that the shortages wrought by the coronavirus crisis will encourage more people to think locally about their food.

“One thing this coronavirus has done is made people stop and look at where my food comes from,” Holland said.

Gurley echoed that sentiment: “People are running to the local food movement and this is what we have been preaching for years."


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