Certain food sources, like e-commerce grocery sites and meal kit companies, are seeing a boost in sales in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, many parts of the world are shuttering farmers markets and restaurants, eliminating key revenue sources for local farmers. So how can those farmers survive in our new coronavirus reality?
Unfortunately, it won’t be easy. Small farmers make a significant chunk of their money from these markets or selling to restaurants — which, as you’ve probably noticed, are also struggling. The numbers are discouraging: Civil Eats pointed to an analysis of the impacts of COVID-19, predicting a $689 million decline in sales from March to May 2020 for farmers who sell at local markets. It’s especially tricky for farmers who sell perishable goods, like eggs and produce, which might go bad while their sales channels are blocked.
Some farmers and supporters are fighting back by making a petition to designate farmers markets in areas like Seattle, where they’ve been shut down, as essential. I think that makes sense. People are already shopping shoulder-to-shoulder in grocery stores, way closer together than six feet. Arguably, it’s less dangerous from a public health standpoint for them to shop outside in the open air?
One solution for farmers could be to move towards selling more CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture. With a CSA, individuals can buy a share in a farm’s output, which is delivered either to their door or a pick-up point, usually once a week. It’s a way to continue to get local produce and support farmers without having to risk cross-contamination in a farmers market, if those are even still available. Clearly people are interested — according to Yelp, deliveries of CSAs have gone up 405 percent in March.
Certain online platforms are also facilitating online sale of local foods. MilkRun in Portland, Oregon, for example, is an online marketplace connecting people with local farms in their area. MilkRun’s CEO and Founder Julia Niiro told me that the company’s orders have increased more than 6 times since the start of the crisis with “no signs of them slowing down” as farmers markets close. Even if you aren’t in the Portland area, Niiro is urging diners to buy from local farmers wherever they can. “If you want to be able to get beautiful, local food at any restaurant after this crisis is over, you need to buy directly from small farmers now,” she told me.
Restaurants are also thinking of creative ways to support farmers. Naked Farmer in Tampa Bay, Florida, which was slated to open its doors this April, has instead pivoted to open a digital farmers market. People can order locally-sourced foods through either the Naked Farmer website or UberEats, and can get their orders at a pick-up zone or via delivery. In Seattle, Eric Rivera, who’s been especially innovative in the face of COVID-19, is partnering with local farmers to sell bags of locally grown vegetables for pickup at his restaurant. Diners can also add it onto their delivery order from his restaurant, Addo.
Some existing online farm-to-diner sites are struggling to keep up with the sudden explosion in demand. UK-based platform Farmdrop, a service that delivers food from farmers to Brits’ doorsteps, has had to limit its drop-off days. When I checked the site earlier today, I saw a note that they are “at capacity and unable to take any further orders for the current days available,” but would be opening new slots soon. In the U.S., local farmed food delivery service Hungry Harvest has also had to pause new signups due to an increase in orders.
That’s an encouraging sign that people want to support local farmers and buy their goods. It also shows that we need more services connecting consumers to farmers and facilitating purchases and delivery. And soon.
Small farmers are already struggling to survive for a myriad of reasons — if we don’t find ways to sell their produce, or give them a significant bailout, we could be looking at a future with significantly fewer farmers markets and locally-grown food. And that’s not a future I want to eat in.
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