Agriculture

Coronavirus uncertainty impacts local farm economies

A man watches a sprinkler as it waters fresh produce on a farm.

No doubt, 2020 will be known as a year of change; good, bad, and lasting. The global coronavirus pandemic has forced shifts and pivots in almost all industries and facets of life.

The food system is no exception. As the resiliency of the local food system is challenged, some farmers and food producers will find it tough to stay afloat in 2020. For others, 2020 is a year of growth, adaptation, and a record-breaking good year, much like 2008 when the Great Recession triggered a return to “local” that drove up demand.

Some media portrayals of the pandemic impacts on farmers are quite devastating. Fields of produce being turned over, thousands of gallons of milk being turned out, and meat producers at a loss due to infections at processing sites are just a few of the images digested by consumers. This is the reality for many farmers across the U.S. Many of these images are of contract farms, who likely have large wholesale or commercial contracts with companies that buy the bulk of their product.

According to a recent Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) report, 76% of small and medium-size farmers in NC and SC are also struggling in the wake of the pandemic. The report found that farms distributing their produce through restaurants, agri-tourism, and farmers markets saw significant drops in sales by May 5 (note: CFSA’s survey did not capture specific geographic details beyond state, i.e., what county or city/town in which respondents were located). According to CFSA, federal relief funding has bypassed many of these smaller, diversified farmers, in favor of high-volume, low-cost commodity production. RAFI USA released information about how policy changes could help these farmers in crisis.

[Read more: Carolinas Urban-Rural Connection and the Sandhills AGInnovation Center]

Many farmers in the Charlotte region and across the US rely heavily on orders from chefs and restaurants. According to Goetz et al (2010), while $460 billion consumer dollars were spent in US grocery stores (and $168 billion in warehouse clubs and supercenters) in 2018, much more — $679 billion — was spent in full-service and limited-service restaurants. Under stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, this lifeblood for farmer income halted. The impact of the pandemic on the restaurant and hospitality industry left doors shut and little demand for products.

However, not all farmers in the Charlotte region have experienced these dramatic declines. Henry Cook, a north-Mecklenburg farmer and one of the pillars in the conventional farming community has been relatively unphased by the pandemic, according to a recent interview with the Charlotte Observer. Though challenging, other organic and conventional growers have been able to redirect their products into new markets.

Several small, local farmers that sell directly to consumers are experiencing record-breaking sales. They do not rely solely on wholesale contracts but instead sell through farmers markets, on-site farm stands, local grocers, and/or community-supported agriculture (CSAs) or farm share programs. Most direct-to-consumer farms in the Charlotte region have less than 20 acres in production and offer a diverse range of products that can include vegetables, fruits, honey, flowers, eggs, meat and more. Rivendell Carolinas has created a map of these farms, as well as farmers markets, who have pivoted their services and operations in the wake of COVID-19. Direct-to-consumer farms have more control over their sales channels and can bend and flex to meet the market need and demand (Darnhofer 2020). Conversations with these farmers in the Charlotte region reveal that demand for direct-to-consumer products has increased significantly during the pandemic.

Farmers who rely on regular restaurant orders also had to pivot toward different opportunities for direct sales. Being smaller, more nimble businesses, direct-to-consumer farms who have been able to shift and increase these opportunities are excelling. Some are selling out of products each week, increasing production mid-season, and reimagining their online presence to keep up with the increased demand. Anecdotal evidence in the Charlotte region has found that farmers who typically offered half steers or full hog purchases are now limiting customers to pre-orders for individual cuts. CSA programs are doubling or tripling in size.

Conversations with some of these farmers indicated that they are increasing drop-off locations, re-thinking how they sell at farmers markets, and shifting towards digital marketing. The close proximity to Charlotte has also opened up opportunities for consumers to pick up goods directly from farms. CFSA’s map of on-farm pick up programs in North Carolina and South Carolina shows many more programs near urban centers, demonstrating the importance of geographic proximity in being able to respond to changing consumer demand during the pandemic.

Challenges and new expenses arise, however, as farmers are pivoting to more direct methods of distribution. And small, diversified farmers — particularly farmers of color — have been unable to access federal assistance programs because this aid is generally geared toward commodity farmers. While more research is necessary, this immediate response to supply chain disruptions may demonstrate the importance of small farms and rural-to-urban connections in order to build a more resilient food system.

The diverse experiences of different-size farms and their proximity to densely populated areas, cities and towns, also brings to light some of the challenges of the global, industrial food system model that expanded over the past decades. Disruptions in the food system brought on by the pandemic have laid bare the inability of just-in-time food supply chains to respond to severe, multi-dimensional shocks (Hendrickson 2020). Instead, the growing demand for direct-to-consumer products may indicate that the general public is increasingly aware of the fragility and vulnerability of food supply chains and are shifting their dollars to local, diversified, and, perhaps more trusted, mechanisms (Schmidt et al 2020).

Erin Hostetler is Program Coordinator for Energy and Environment Innovation & Foundation, LLC (EEIF); Senior Project Manager for Rivendell Farms of the Carolinas; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council Board Member; ehostetler@energyenviro.org

Colleen Hammelman is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council Board Member; colleen.hammelman@uncc.edu