By Nicole DelCogliano
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the local agriculture community and especially new and beginning farmers, those who have been farming 10 years or less. Access to land, markets and capital provides a unique set of challenges that new and beginning farmers face, reflected in the Organic Growers School (OGS) 2015 Barriers to Farming Survey and repeated in the newly released 2020 Farming in NC Report.
I interviewed three new and beginning farmers, all graduates of OGS’s Farm Beginnings® program. A major theme throughout each interview was the increased uncertainties newer farmers face, exacerbated by this pandemic. It was also evident that each farmer had developed planning and tracking systems, allowing them to make informed, adaptive decisions based on real data. In addition, each farm is well networked in the food and farming community, particularly due to their participation in CRAFT Farmer Network and Farm Beginnings programs, making access to information and other farmers easier.
“We are resilient as farmers,” says Gwendolyn Casebeer of Black Trumpet Farm, a gourmet, medicinal mushrooms and herb farm. “I’ve enjoyed having the farmer virtual calls (OGS-sponsored) to hear what other farmers are doing; that is super helpful.” New and beginning farmers are still figuring out their longer-term strategies and this pandemic has highlighted the difficulty for those farms still establishing their reputations and names. Gwen and her partner Jay founded Black Trumpet in 2019 and have both recently quit their “day jobs,” as their planned scale-up would double their production and require both of them to be working full-time on the farm. They, as well as others, are now facing major market uncertainty and their planning has taken a left turn as a result.
Pre-pandemic, Black Trumpet’s plan included 50 percent of revenue from restaurants and the rest from farmers markets, at which they are mostly “day members.” Day members are not guaranteed a spot at markets, and with many markets reducing the number of vendors due to social distancing requirements, the number of day member spots available has also been reduced.
This access issue was echoed by Stephen Rosenthal of New Roots Market Garden in Forks of Ivy, a farm that also relies heavily on restaurants and farmers markets for income. This season they had decided to focus exclusively on farmers markets. When the pandemic struck, they had to quickly adjust their production planning and shift to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and home delivery system.
Headwaters Market Garden, an incubator farm at the SAHC Community Farm, has had similar experiences. They had started selling to restaurants in early March and, in the second week, the shutdown was put in place. They had to adjust their production planning and quickly try to find alternative outlets, and are expecting a 25 to 30 percent reduction in revenue at a minimum, also related to an anticipated land transition.
There have been some surprising silver linings as well. For New Roots Market Garden, the home delivery CSA system has been easier than expected. “This pandemic has forced us into thinking about marketing ideas we wouldn’t have thought of before,” says Rosenthal. He also spoke about how people in their more immediate area are joining the CSA.
“We are tapping into customers we wouldn’t have before, who are passionate about local food and don’t want to go to farmers markets,” he says.
Other farmers are experiencing this loyalty and support from customers as well, as customers realize the value of local farms and foods and how fragile the global food system and delivery structures are. “We felt like we were turning into a boutique outlet for high-end restaurants, and now maybe it’s a shift back to who this product is for—our local community,” Casebeer says. The farmers all seem excited about that possibility and hope that it doesn’t take another disaster for people to continue to see that local food is closer, safer, healthier and good for our local economy.
Savannah Salley of Headwaters Market Garden agrees, and feels this pandemic has been a good reminder “that what we do is important and valued. I’ve been impressed,” she adds, “by how supportive the community and other farmers have been.”
Nicole DelCogliano is a farmer and educator. She and her husband have operated Green Toe Ground Farm in Yancey County since 2001 and sell at regional markets in Asheville. She is a member of the newly formed farmer cooperative Patchwork Alliance, teaches at Organic Growers School and coordinates the year-long farmer training Farm Beginnings. To learn more about the farms profiled, visit BlackTrumpetNC.com, NewRootsNC.com and Facebook.com/HeadwatersMarketGarden. For more about Organic Growers School, visit OrganicGrowersSchool.org.