Nothing beats a Monday morning with panicked customers reacting to the latest viral story from a well-known celebrity chef. This week’s cause for cowering, an article in The Counter co-written by Chef Dan Barber of famed restaurants Blue Hill in New York City and at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture talking about the resourcED National Farmer Survey Report. In the headlines, Barber predicted that nearly a third of small independent farmers will go bankrupt or out of business by the end of 2020 due to the Corona virus pandemic. Imagining the loss of that many beloved market vendors, fear immediately began to spread among my Sunday regulars, many who have had the good fortune to enjoy a meal at Blue Hill.
Earlier this year when Stone Barns posted the position of Livestock Manager I thought to myself what a dream job it would be. Had I not been completely enamored with my current endeavors, I would have jumped on that like a barn cat on a field mouse. How fun it would be to experiment with innovative regenerative farming practices working in unison with nature without having to worry about the financial ramifications of failure. Operating as a non-profit with the backing of the Rockefeller Estate and many other patrons offering five and six figure support, it’s a far cry from most of the farmers you’ll come across at your local markets. When well-funded operations such as Stone Barns face shortfalls in their budgets for whatever reason, be it poor practices or events beyond human control, there is the ability to approach the board of directors and big donors to cover the red ink. For farmers like me such shortfalls have meant making a hard choice between buying winter hay for livestock or heating fuel for the house.
I recognize the importance of education and experimental programs in sustainable agriculture, but I found it utterly irresponsible to publish and promote a report making such broad predictions for a large and diverse demographic.
With a title like National Farmer Survey Report I would have thought the data was collected from more than 240 respondents. According to the 2018 census of the National Agricultural Statistic Service at the USDA, there are 1,848,000 small, independent farms in the United States. That’s 0.013% sampling for Chef Dan Barber to predict the demise of 1/3 of us.
Are some farmers going to go bankrupt or out of business due to COVID19? Absolutely. However, I began to dig deeper into the report and it’s just not adding up for me.
First, over half of the respondents were vegetable farms with five acres or less operated by 25- to 34-year-old white women. While many listed their geographical location as rural, the pins on the map showed the majority in proximity to metropolitan locations. I, along with many other vendors, consider myself to be rural, but can be in the heart of four major cities in two hours.
If you really want to meet farmers who can survive insurmountable conditions in a hostile environment, get to know some racially diverse farmers or read Leah Penniman’s book, Farming While Black, Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.
Another glaring omission from the survey was seafood and fisheries. Some of the biggest laments of the fallout from the pandemic’s closures has been from oyster farmers and commercial fishermen. They’re the ones with highly perishable products often selling to restaurants. They now fear for their financial survival just as much as the hog farmers in Nebraska. The only plus being they can leave their income in the water instead of burying it in ditches for a complete loss.
The truth about small independent farmers is that we are the ones feeding our communities. Selling to celebrity chefs with Michelin stars and James Beard awards is not the norm, although it is nice. By posing the hypothetical scenario of sales to restaurants down 50% and farmers market sales also down by 50%, it’s no wonder that farmers polled predicted their own demise. Instead, consider the question of how many people go out to eat at fancy farm-to-table restaurants versus how many regularly cook at home with local ingredients for themselves and their families.
From my perspective as a small independent farmer I am not seeing Barber’s premonition and I think I’ve got a darn good view. Yes, we’ve had to re-tool multiple times with some failures, some successes but everyone is in mitigation mode at this time. Good grief, the disruption began in mid-March and already there’s a slick survey dividing us into groups while at the same time prognosticating our collective failure.
As I read down through the survey’s findings my hackles rose with indignation at the lack of understanding of complex food systems. For instance, does it really matter if the farm’s location is rural or urban? Why not ask who the target customers are? I know who mine are. They are city-dwellers and local restaurants. My neighbors down the road have an on-farm stand and a CSA. Another sells 100% of their milk to a co-op. We all live in the same demographic area, but we serve completely different customers. Those distinctions matter.
In the last eight weeks it’s been a wild ride as an independent farmer. The survey reported revenues decreasing by 51.3%. I can believe those numbers as during that same time my restaurant sales, too, completely disappeared. However, I’ve learned the hard way not to put all my eggs in one basket. My retail sales went through the roof and not just from panic purchases. Kids home from college, parents moving in with grown children. The food service industry came to a grinding halt until restaurateurs figured out how to safely serve their customers’ needs through takeout and delivery.
But after the first month, orders began coming back in from restaurants doing a brisk takeout business. I’ve even witnessed small independent restaurants’ business increasing because they are no longer limited to their in-house seating capacity. Servers have been re-employed as kitchen staff to meet the overwhelming demand. Ingredients are being ordered from farmers, same as before.
People still need to eat and that food has to come from somewhere. We’re seeing how large monoculture industrial food systems are suffering under COVID19. Dan Barber is worried about big food taking back the customers they’ve lost, but like those massive processing plants that have been shuttered, how is this going to happen if all the employees are sick and dying? If the pipeline for raw commodity ingredients has dried up? For The Counter interview Chef Barber mentioned speaking to food executives in their ivory towers. Maybe he should have been talking to small independent farmers on the front lines instead of just sending out a survey to those who had the time and technology to fill it out. This is what he would have learned.
Farmers like Erik and Meghan at Dicot Farm in Maryland who are quite similar to the survey’s dominant demographics had this to say. “In general we and most small veg farmers we know have been able to adapt by finding other outlets (more CSA members, home delivery options, etc.) to replace any lost revenue from restaurant and market sales. At the moment we are not concerned about bankruptcy.”
Similarly, in the livestock sector I reached out to Patty Neiner, the Program Manager of the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA WAgN) and co-owner of a small independent farm in State College, Pennsylvania who direct-markets 100% of their livestock. “Our experience has been that we can’t grow animals fast enough for the demand. Small is resilient in these days.”
Ms. Neiner also shared her frustration over mainstream media’s one size fits all approach. “I was just interviewed by Penn State Alumni News and the reporter was shocked that our business was doing so well. I think I ruined her doom and gloom story. The truth in food shortages is that the country just eats less junk like fast foods and more homemade meals. I have definitely seen that happening more.”
From the Chesapeake region, Dena Leibman reported, “I’ve been talking seemingly nonstop with farmers. Many are experiencing a boom season, sales-wise, and are hustling to plant more and find new sales avenues, all while being fearful that when the global supply chain comes back online, even somewhat, they will lose some fly-by-night customers. The future is uncertain; the present full of as many opportunities as challenges. Going bankrupt is not what I’m hearing.” Leibman is the Executive Director of and Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (FHCASA) who further reached out to her staff with the same questions.
Lisa Garfield, manager of the Million Acre Challenge, a 7- to 10-year project which aims to have no fewer than one million Maryland agricultural acres in regenerative production by 2029, offered these insights.
“While some small farms have hit their stride and feel secure financially, I think that any number of challenges—weather related, etc., could make many feel less secure. Also, farmers in the NE have a shorter growing season, so disruptions to the market may be felt more acutely.
I do think there is a huge concern that as soon as people feel comfortable going back to grocery stores that some of the big increases we’ve seen at farmers markets and in CSA subscriptions may recede. If restaurants start opening again, some of those losses could be absorbed back into that system, but I think that will be much, much, much slower. CSA shares (typically) are prepaid, so that food and those dollars should already be accounted for, regardless of short-term shifts this summer—though some new CSA members will likely stop picking up their shares by mid-summer.”
At the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), Executive Director Hannah Smith Brubaker, who is also a co-owner of a small independent farm, confirmed my assessment of the survey’s results as she, too, is seeing a groundswell of support both in the PASA community and on her multi-generational small farm.
Here in the mid-Atlantic region farmers have been blessed with organizations who foster vibrant opportunities for education, networking, research and support for nearly fifty years. It’s not a stretch to attribute the mature and robust sustainable agricultural community to these resources. We’ve pioneered year-round markets giving both consumers and retailers access to locally grown seasonal foods. We’ve spun up multiple Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models, cooperatives and collectives.
What really sticks in my craw, to question the tenacity of the American small independent farmer, or any farmer for that matter after only eight weeks of adversity. In the final section of the survey findings I was floored to see the statistics that 69% reported they had to work more due to increased direct-to-consumer sales.
Well, no kidding. Selling direct to consumers is not a walk in the park; it’s hard work. Farming is hard work. In the beginning of all these changes, I often found myself breaking out in tears over the overwhelming struggle to create new routines when my business model was changing from day to day. And it’s not just farmers who are working harder. How about teachers, medical and emergency personnel, essential retailers, delivery people?
Throughout my thirty years in agriculture I’ve repeatedly witnessed farmers encountering seemingly insurmountable odds against them, crushing losses and failures doled out by Mother Nature, accidents or circumstance, much like the world is now experiencing with the Corona virus. And yet they bounce back time and time again, continuing to produce food in one way or another.
Farmers are the masters at figuring out how to fix something due to shear necessity. It took a novel virus for humanity to recognize how tenuous our food system has become. But at the same time, I’m participating in revolutionary changes to facilitate customers’ access to food. Consumers finally grasping the inequity of the modern food system that results in artificially low prices for commodities.
Recognizing that these issues are not going away any time soon, farmers are investing time and resources into keeping their operations functional and transparent. There will most certainly be hiccups and breakdowns during the coming months. Hard decisions and sacrifices will be made.
Here’s the best part about adversity, though—you come out on the other side often wiser and better for your experience. Let’s focus on moving forward solving each challenge that presents itself as it arrives instead of falling victim to doomsday predictions. As farmers, we got this.