Food and Farming in a Time of Uncertainty

April 1, 2020

Small-acreage farming is a tough business in the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic, as it has for many businesses around the country, has left many farmers uncertain of where and how they'll sell their products this season.

Ironically, this comes at a time when consumers are uncertain about where they'll find the fresh produce they'll need in coming months. Direct-to-consumer marketing channels are still at risk of being reduced or eliminated in the coming months, as farmer markets, while technically essential, are in the process of trying to figure out how or if to operate in light of social distancing recommendations. Local food hubs that were selling primarily through wholesale markets are having to suspend parts of their operation. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, online direct marketing and home delivery services could be an answer, and we've seen interest in these options from consumers increase in recent weeks. But this requires significant time and energy to develop, and has not been the primary mode of sales for many farms.

In some cases, farmers may be able to weather this uncertainty by banding together and leveraging the resources of the group to assist in this massive adjustment in marketing approach. For the vegetable cooperative the Richland Gro-op, a part of the Mansfield Microfarm Project, restaurant and institution closures have resulted in some of the cooperative's potential wholesale customers shutting both their doors and their pocketbooks. With growers' high tunnels fully planted and many spring crops going in the ground over the coming weeks, the Gro-op may need to seek out new markets for their produce, including direct-to-consumer CSA and online sale options. Tackled alone, farms will tell you that these marketing strategies are time-consuming to establish and often require the kind of logistical support that is challenging for a small-acreage farm. But as a group, the co-op together can invest time and energy into investigating and piloting those types of alternatives, to the benefit of their producers, as well as consumers seeking local produce.

Recent conversations in the media and other outlets highlight vulnerabilities in the food system as COVID-19 affects populations that were already food insecure, and those who will become vulnerable due to layoffs and lost income. With feared disruption in transportation networks and emergency food supplies, families are anticipating a shortage in fresh produce in the coming months and are looking to take matters into their own hands through at-home gardens - a modern day Victory Garden movement. Participants in InFACT's Buckeye Institution-Supported Agriculture (Buckeye ISA) network are better positioned to navigate this new landscape. Armed with training and supplies, 75 households in economically disadvantaged communities throughout Central Ohio, and along the Rt-33 corridor, have been growing fresh produce in their own backyards and community garden spaces for the last two growing seasons.

Programs such as Buckeye ISA and Richland Gro-op help people feed their families and communities, and could help provide a supply of locally-grown fresh produce when global or national supply chains are disrupted. These collaborations and pilot projects can help build resilience in food systems during times of uncertainty. Existing farmers are struggling with the reality of feeding a hungry Ohio and planning for a season without knowing the future. Even as we all navigate this uncharted territory, our local farmers need our support more than ever. The co-op and backyard garden plots are not likely to provide all the food needed in a region (...yet!). But by piloting these types of collaborative approaches to local food system supply chains, we can contribute to our collective understanding of how systems can be responsive to crises and shifting demand, while lifting up producers and ensuring their livelihoods.

For more information on farming and local food related to the pandemic, see:

Resources for Food Businesses, Farms, and Farmers Markets

Policy Responses to COVID-19

This story was written by InFACT Program Coordinators Angela Blatt and Dana Hilfinger.