RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — News images from Florida and California showed vegetables rotting in the fields and milk dumped on the ground, while people were lining up at food banks and finding nearly empty shelves at the grocery store.
North Carolina’s produce farmers weren’t forced to make those choices, because they were still transitioning from greens, radishes and other spring crops to summer vegetables. Only a handful of the state’s dairy farmers were forced to dump milk.
But they still faced tough challenges after restaurants, schools, hotels, sports venues and some farmers’ markets closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They’ve had to put more money into online sales, deliveries, protective equipment and extra labor.
A recent survey of Triangle farms showed roughly 35% had lost over $1,000 a week to COVID-19 shutdowns, said Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. That’s huge for farms with $50,000 to $100,000 in sales a year, he said.
Farmer Roger Nutter dumped milk at Maple View Farm in Orange County after his core customers closed.
Roughly 130 cows produce about 1,100 gallons a day, according to Maple View’s website. Nutter is donating up to 300 gallons a week now to local nonprofits that help hungry and homeless families. His direct sales to customers have remained steady due to home delivery partners whose sales are soaring and a brisk drive-up business at the Maple View store on Dairyland Road.
“We’re having to deliver seven days a week to keep up with all the demand,” Nutter said. “We’re fortunate. We’ve got a job, and we’re all trying to stay healthy and trying to stay safe, and as long as we can do that, I think we’ll be able to pull through this OK.”
Homeland Creamery in Guilford County dumped about 17,000 gallons of milk, according to a WNCN report, but after customers spread the word on Facebook, people lined up to buy milk, ice cream, eggs and meat.
It’s not unusual for dairies to dump milk, said Reid Smith, president of the N.C. Dairy Producers Association, but the amount dumped a few weeks ago was “unprecedented.”
“Especially in the spring when milk production is up naturally … then there can be too much milk,” Smith said. “Typically, you try to find a home for that milk, and the system can usually absorb that milk.”
Maple View, Homeland and the state’s other independent milk producer, Simply Natural Creamery in Ayden, face different challenges than most state dairy farmers, who bring their milk to market as part of a cooperative, he said. Cooperatives still have strong milk and ice cream sales, but they are getting lower prices because export markets dried up and restaurants and food companies nationwide are buying less cheese and powdered milk, he said.
OUTBREAKS, PRESSURE ON MEAT PLANTS
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and others continue to emphasize that COVID-19 cannot be spread through food. Outbreaks that sideline workers at state processing plants are the biggest risk to the nation’s food distribution system, they said.
President Trump also issued an executive order last week ordering meat processing plants to remain open, even as cases among workers are rising. New measures are being implemented at some plants to keep workers safe.
Coronavirus outbreaks have been reported in at least 13 North Carolina meat-processing plants, including Smithfield Foods in Bladen County, Mountaire Farms in Chatham County, and a Butterball plant in Duplin County.
Butchers and regional processors that serve local farmers face another, different problem, because consumers who can’t find meat at their grocery store are seeking out alternative sources, said Candace Cansler, executive director of the N.C. Meat Processors Association.
It’s not just the amount of meat being processed that is overwhelming local and regional facilities, but also the demand for cuts sold in smaller packages that appeal to consumers, instead of big cuts of meat by the case for sale to restaurants and institutions.
The result is a slower processing and distribution system that forces farmers to keep their animals longer, increasing the cost for their feed and care.
Piedmont Custom Meats, in Caswell County and Asheboro, is one of a few dozen USDA- and NCDA-inspected businesses around the state that process meat for local farmers. On April 24, it emailed its customers about scheduling delays that could push new appointments into August. It is trying to hire more meat cutters, the email said.
Retailers and restaurants accounted for about 70% of their sales before COVID-19, said Jennifer Curtis, co-founder of Durham’s Firsthand Foods, a food hub that helps local farmers sell pasture-raised beef, pork and lamb. Now, they are relying primarily on retailers and and home delivery businesses, she said.
Curtis said she doesn’t expect consumer demand to decline once restaurants reopen, because people have seen the value of local food and the convenience of curbside pickup and home delivery.
“I hope that direct-to-farmer and direct-to-local food hub opportunities remain for people. We’ll just have to see,” Curtis said. “It’s really a dramatic change, so quickly.”
DURHAM FARMERS MARKET REOPENS
Farmers also were hurt when the Durham Farmers’ Market and other Triangle area markets closed. Many of the Durham market’s 65 vendors are older farmers, who decided to step back for a while instead of seeking alternatives, market manager Susan Sink said.
“Everyone is of the belief that this is going to be a roller coaster in and out, and we may have to go back to the market being closed or having delivery only,” Sink said. “Now we’re in a better position to do that than we were four weeks ago, but Durham has been extremely cautious compared with Wake County and a couple of the other counties.”
Those farmers markets that stayed open spread out their vendors, limited shoppers’ contact with food, and asked them to wear masks, form socially distanced lines and reduce their time talking with farmers.
The Durham Farmers’ Market reopened May 2 with similar rules in place. Customers and vendors had to wear face masks.
But many local farms already have gone online, whether as a solo operation or in partnership with others. They are delivering orders to customers’ homes or scheduled pickup sites.
That system works well for less-rural farms with better access to broadband and cellular service, McReynolds said. “I’ve talked to people who have adapted really well to online marketing that are wishing they had more ground to plant,” he said.
ONLINE SALES, PICKUP AND DELIVERY
Strong Arm Baking in Oxford started a Saturday porch drop after losing its access to local farmers markets, its Duke University contract and its ability to host monthly pop-up dinners.
Owners Julia and Thomas Blaine set up the online store with options, including baked goods and eggs, a weekly veggie box from Sugar Hill Produce, Chapel Hill Creamery cheese, and coffee and crackers from smaller producers. They’re selling out of everything, Julia Blaine said.
“The last two Sundays, we’ve turned the ordering system off after three hours of posting it, which is great for us, but it’s not great for our customers that have been supporting us for five years, who now can’t get their loaf of bread every week because of the increased demand,” Blaine said.
However, it takes more work and money to package, deliver and resolve supply chain issues, Blaine said.
To serve their customers, Strong Arm meets Chapel Hill Creamery, which is 45 minutes away, at a central location to pick up 60 blocks of cheese each week. Sugar Hill Produce drives 100 miles round-trip early every Saturday to deliver 30 produce boxes to the bakery.
Their delivery drivers — five on Thursday and six on Saturday — spend seven hours each week dropping off orders on porches and at five regional pickup sites. At least 1,000 people have joined their email newsletter.
“One thing I hate to think about is on Saturday morning, all the work that we’re doing to get our fresh bread on people’s porches, there’s 10 other farmers (with their own online operations) going to the same houses delivering their products,” Blaine said.
Farms that rely heavily on agritourism, from weddings to farm tours and dinners, may have an even more difficult climb.
Elodie Farms was already operating on a thin margin when COVID-19 and social distancing ended its agritourism business, which attracted 1,200 people to the Rougemont goat farm last year.
Owners Sandra Vergara and Ted Domville could have continued to host small groups but didn’t want to risk their visitors’ health, Vergara said. That eliminated roughly 60% of their business, plus a large portion of their goat cheese sales.
“Really, bringing people out here is what helps us keep the farm up and running,” she said.
Elodie Farms pays more to operate because it eschews traditional livestock methods, she said. They keep their babies and mothers together and follow natural breeding cycles. They don’t slaughter any of their 73 goats, who live about 13 years, for meat.
“I want (our customers) to trust that what we’re doing does not hurt an animal, that we would never jeopardize an animal’s health for a log of cheese,” Vergara said.
Elodie Farms is asking for donations toward the goats’ care and applying for grants. They may add some small-group activities, from self-guided farm tours to reviving an old ice cream truck and opening a farm stand, she said.
They’re also betting on an alliance with Pine Knot Farms, HTS Farm and Sankofa Farms to sell eggs, beef, vegetables and cheese online. A stipend from the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International pays Vergara to pick up the products and deliver them on Thursdays and Fridays, she said. Durham’s West End Wine Bar offered its parking lot for Saturday pickups.
“I really kind of stumbled up on these people who are so invested in sustainability and education by accident, but I’m loving it, because I believe in their mission,” Vergara said. “Especially (because) they’re African American and they’re trying to contribute to mending a really big gap in terms of the nutrition of this demographic.”
FARMERS TURN TO HELP
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition predicted in March that COVID-19 could have a $1.32 billion economic impact through May on local farmers. That figure doesn’t include what farmers have spent to start online stores, hire employees, buy masks and gloves, or make other changes to protect workers, consumers and their farms.
On April 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would make $19 billion in federal aid available for farmers across the nation through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
Other farms have turned to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for help or reached out to Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and other regional food hubs, like Firsthand Foods and Happy Dirt.
Happy Dirt, a farmer-owned food distributor in Durham, has heard from farms in the last couple of months that they haven’t heard from in years, CEO Sandi Kronick said. Happy Dirt offers its farmers a network of restaurants, stores and home delivery box clubs.
She’s also seen a resurgence in community-supported agriculture, in which farms sign customers up for a season of weekly boxes containing meat, produce and other goods.
“Obviously, there’s massive suffering and a ton of insecurity happening right now, so I wouldn’t call it a silver lining,” Kronick said, “but I do think it’s important that people have been reconsidering where their food comes from and how to better connect with people within a certain regional geography of them.”