A recent surge of interest in local food networks is a boon to farmers, but shoppers need to maintain their support over the long term.
Farmers need us more than ever right now – and I suspect that many of us are suddenly realizing just how badly we need farmers, too. Never in modern memory has our food supply chain felt so precarious as it has during this coronavirus pandemic. Previously abundant, ever-accessible ingredients are no longer available in stores, and many people are having to make do or go without.
As borders close and foreign worker programs stall, I find myself simultaneously relieved that I live in a rural area surrounded by productive farmers and anxious that they won't have the labor force or retail outlets to maintain production. I've been worried about the fact that seasonal farmers' markets will likely not open as usual and wonder how farmers will sell their products.Unfortunately farmers are no strangers to crisis. Food Tank reported that farm bankruptcies in the U.S. hit an eight-year high in 2019, many of which can be "attributed to the failings of industrial agriculture — prolonged low commodity prices, ever-mounting farm debt, animal disease, consolidation, and the impact of climate change causing record flooding in the Midwest and fires in the West." It's never been easy to be a farmer, but now the coronavirus pandemic is yet another burden on an already strained system. This is why we, as shoppers and eaters, need to help our farmers more than ever right now – and benefit from the fabulous food they have to offer.
What can we do?
Food Tank says that short-term support can take the form of signing up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share, shopping at a farmers' market (if it hasn't been shut down in your community), and ordering direct: "Many farmers offer delivery of organic produce and pastured meats, and more farmers are adding this service in the wake of the pandemic."
Look at the websites and Facebook pages of local farmers you normally buy from at farmers' markets and contact them to find out what their new retail strategy is. No doubt many have come up with alternative ways to sell their products, mainly online markets or farm gate sales, and you should support these. Some may offer a delivery service to spare you leaving the house. My egg provider drops off several dozen eggs on the back deck and I e-transfer her the balance each month.
Leslie Moskovits, an organic farmer from Hanover, Ontario, who runs the large CSA program that I support, told TreeHugger that people should also advocate for farmers' markets to remain open, as long as they "transition to safe distancing protocols to support all the producers and others that rely on that."
Another great approach is to join online food co-ops, which source food from farmers and distribute either to a main pickup point or deliver to your home. My local co-op, called Eat Local Grey Bruce (after the counties it serves), has experienced a 250 percent increase in order volume over the past three weeks. (The only reason it hasn't gone higher is because of store-imposed limits.) Jeannine Kralt, the warehouse manager of Eat Local, told TreeHugger,
"There is increased interest from producers inquiring about becoming members, as well as from existing producers about having more product going through ELGB now that markets are closed. There has also been interest in our model as a local food hub, and we've been doing our best to share knowledge as we can."
Kralt said that the Eat Local co-op has sold numerous new memberships, seen old members returning, and active members placing much larger orders. Some shoppers are attracted to the home delivery feature, while others have been referred by farmers they usually buy from in person at weekly markets. When asked if she thinks the support will continue, Kralt said that growth probably won't continue at the same rapid rate, but that there will be steady expansion. "It's a chance for local food systems to shine right now, bringing more awareness to people who aren't necessarily as aware of options that existed. I am hopeful that the movement will continue."
Beyond shopping, you could consider working for a local farm, if the pandemic has resulted in job loss. Many market gardeners are in desperate need of laborers to fill the void left by absent temporary workers from other countries. A farm in my town, which is not receiving its usual team of Mexican farmhands, has put out a call on social media:
"We know that many local people currently find themselves unemployed. We also know that there are many students for whom anticipated summer jobs may not now be available. Recognizing this, over the coming days we will be asking people to apply to work at planting and harvesting on our farm for this growing season."
This could be an interesting opportunity for people to try their hand at farming who may not have had the chance otherwise – a paid internship of sorts, and probably one of the healthier places to be these days, in an open field.
Support restaurants that are supporting farmers. On the social media post mentioned above, I noticed a local restaurant owner had commented, saying it would love to work with the farm and features its line-up. Seeing that makes me even more inclined to support the restaurant through takeout orders.
But what happens after?
Farmer Leslie Moskovits said the real test will be after this is all over.
"Right now, local farmers are experiencing a surge of interest as people who do not normally feel vulnerable get a glimpse of the insecurities in our current food system and rush to access a secure, local source of food. Certainly there is insecurity for farmers whose marketing outlets have shut down but in general, many farms are experiencing an increase in interest."
What remains to be seen is if this enthusiasm for local food will continue once grocery stores restock and shopping goes back to usual. Moskovits hopes that people will remember how much farmers mattered to them during this crisis and then act on it. "I would encourage people to educate themselves on the barriers that are in place for local farming to increase and advocate for local food systems, and vote accordingly."
For example, the province of Ontario, Canada, has little to no accessible support for new farmers, especially those wanting to get into low-asset, small-scale ecological farm models. The neighboring province of Quebec, by contrast, does offer financial supports that encourage local food systems, which is why many beginning small-scale ecological farmers are moving there.
The number of farmers is decreasing across Canada and the United States, and their average age is going up. "In a crisis like we have now, where people are wanting access to a secure food source," Moskovits said, "they should be very aware of needed supports for a thriving local food system."
It may be difficult to imagine life beyond the current crisis we're experiencing, but this too shall pass. Then it's up to us to maintain the local, seasonal food habits we established in a time of crisis and make them our new normal.