Salisbury — Designated essential businesses in Maryland, but ordered to close in Delaware and Virginia. Then, allowed to reopen in Virginia.
State policies during the coronavirus pandemic regarding farmers markets have confused and upset members of the local agriculture community, even as an early spring heralds produce and the pandemic empties grocery store shelves.
The closures have prompted some local growers to throw considerable time and effort into pivoting their business norms to fit with their state's pandemic rules. For some, the efforts are paying off: Many farms are seeing more business than ever.
Subscriptions to Community Supported Agriculture boxes and delivery services are soaring, and some farmers markets have applied social distancing rules in order to keep operating, said Niamh Shortt, field school director for Future Harvest CASA, a regional nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture.
"It's been a pretty wild time, actually, for the local farming community because demand is really high for local foods," said Shortt, who has been involved in the Delmarva Peninsula agricultural community for seven years. "It's exciting for the farmers who are in a position to be able to absorb those customers."
But for the small-scale growers who can't afford to redesign their operations and who face a ban on farmers markets, the pandemic has been a disaster, said Helaine Harris, president of the Historic Lewes Farmer's Market.
"We're very, very frustrated that at a time when we should most be encouraging and supporting farmers markets, they're not being supported by the state of Delaware," Harris said.
ADAPTING TO CORONAVIRUS CIRCUMSTANCES
Natalie McGill and Stewart Lundy, who operate Perennial Roots Farm in Accomack County, Virginia, said they are currently doing double the business they were at this time last year.
Perennial Roots grows non-GMO, open-pollinated heirloom plants and raises heritage breed pigs, sheep, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits and turkeys.
Usually, Perennial Roots sells its produce and meats at about five markets per week and makes sales to shops and restaurants, but since the pandemic it has switched to a CSA and an online store that the couple built in just two weeks.
Shares in the CSA quickly sold out, and they had to create a waiting list, the couple said. Local delivery for the CSA shares has received a "really positive" response and they are taking extra precautions to make sure even elderly customers who fear the virus most are able to get groceries stress-free.
"Every time there's a health outbreak or a recall, it never affects small farmers … this has been true all along, and now people are starting to — people are having to — recognize it," Lundy said.
Keeping things safe and sanitary is important for the farmers themselves, too.
"We're feeding too many people to risk one of us getting contaminated," McGill said.
The local farm model is, by nature, pretty suited to a pandemic, and CSAs especially are safe ways to get food, Shortt said. Very few people touch the food as it goes from the farm to your table, and ordering it online for pickup means no need to venture into an enclosed, potentially germy space (like a grocery store).
To connect people with local growers in their area, Future Harvest created an interactive map of farmers and markets across the Chesapeake Bay region.
"We're learning that there is nothing like a pandemic to drive home the importance of a robust, regional food system and the healthy, safe, local food such a system can dish up," wrote Future Harvest executive director Dena Leibman on the nonprofit's website.
Likewise for Matt and Stefanie Barfield, who operate Chesterfield Heirlooms in Pittsville, Maryland. The pandemic created challenges that forced innovation.
Normally, Chesterfield Heirlooms makes most of its money from selling wholesale to local restaurants. With restaurant sales wiped out by the pandemic's closures, the couple built an on-farm pickup service from scratch, growing from zero to over 100 orders in just about a month, Matt Barfield said.
The process has included a big learning curve but helped the business greatly, Barfield said.
"It is tough — it takes a lot more to run that part of the business than it does the wholesale outlets," he said. "It takes a lot more management to put that phase of the operation into play. But without it, we'd be in trouble."
Barfield said he feels now the business is filling two roles: as a provider of niche products (most of the vegetables are from pre-1940 heirloom seeds) and as a filler of gaps in the industrial food system.
The changes forced by the coronavirus pandemic will actually stick around after life goes back to normal — and the farmers hope the customer increase will, too.
"Really we're competing on quality," Barfield said. "We think that the flavor and the quality of the product, once it's all said and done and ... everything gets stabilized, the folks who had a chance to try it will be like, 'Wow, local really does taste better. There is a difference.' "
For McGill and Lundy, switching to the CSA model allows them to spend more time doing what they love — farming — instead of standing under a tent at a farmers market most days of the week. They intend to keep it.
"We are exactly where we're supposed to be in this moment," McGill said.
DELAWARE FARMS SHUT OUT OF MARKET
Operating a farmers market during a pandemic is tricky, but Future Harvests is helping markets create and implement new safety rules, Shortt said.
A pandemic-friendly farmers market involves adding visual guidelines to help with distancing, not allowing customers to touch the merchandise, and requiring face masks. There also needs to be effort made in controlling the perimeter, in order to prevent too many people from congregating at a time.
Rules need to be strict, as some markets still operating have found attendees show up and simply don't follow them, Shortt said.
And, under pandemic rules, social aspects of a market, like musicians, tastings or chef demos, are definitely cancelled.
"People have to understand the true nature of what a farmers market is," Harris said. "I think people love the sociability of it … talking to a farmer and meeting their friends there. But the basic point of a farmers market is to deliver food products to customers."
Some farmers markets, like the Camden Avenue Farmers Market in Salisbury, are seeing more customers than normal, Shortt said.
For Chesterfield Heirlooms, it has been "a blessing" that they can continue to sell their vegetables at the Camden market after their restaurant sales disappeared. It makes up the difference that their new pickup service doesn't cover, Barfield said.
In Delaware, markets have been banned since mid-March and are likely to remain closed until at least May 15, if not longer.
Harris and associates have been working hard on a plan for Delaware to reopen farmers markets across the state safely. But there is no certainty that their efforts will succeed.
"We don't think the farmers markets should have ever not been considered essential services," Harris said. "Farmers markets are food distribution services ... (but) we're being seen as social venues."
There are 35 growers who usually depend on the Historic Lewes Farmers Market to sell their produce, Harris said.
Given the situation, Harris said some are wondering whether to plant at all.
FINANCING A PIVOT
Pivoting on a dime to develop a website, increase sanitation or change product packaging has created new costs for small farmers, some of whom don't know if they will come out of this in the black or in the red, Shortt said.
Many Delaware farmers have been hit hard, Harris said. Growers whose suffering is particularly acute are those who don't sell food products — people who grow flowers for weddings, for example, Shortt said.
"We are working with them, but it's not a panacea — (pivoting) is a hard, hard thing for farmers to do," Harris said.
The decision of whether to pass these costs forward to consumers is up to the individual farmer. For many, the conversation about rethinking prices is happening, Shortt said.
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"There is a real, sincere understanding on the part of the farmers that many people are losing their jobs," Shortt said. "It's a morally conflicting situation."
That's why, as of May 11, Future Harvest is launching a fund to help farmers weather market changes caused by the pandemic and bring food to the community at a low cost.
The "Feed the Need Fund" is raising money to provide mini-grants, ranging from $500 to $5,000, to farmers who make some of their product more affordable. The intention is to make sure farmers get paid for the food they grow while making it accessible to more members of the community, Shortt said.
Methods that might qualify for a grant include offering sliding scales on CSA orders and home deliveries, or providing free produce to local food banks and pantries.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also running a program of support for food banks, but what makes the Feed the Need Fund different is its flexibility: Farmers who don't live in a community with a food bank can still receive a grant by lowering their prices another way, Shortt said.
Between the efforts of the local farm community to help those in need and to provide sanitary food to those who seek it, there's a hope that a pandemic-fueled increase in awareness of local farms and local produce could translate to more federal and state assistance for the often-overlooked small-scale grower, Shortt said.
“This crisis shows how important local farms really are,” she said.