The Pandemic Could Hit New Farmers Hard, Just When We Need Them Most

Tamara J. Benjamin April 11, 2020

A customer receives a bag of produce at the Star Route Farms stand in the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco March 21. Many small and beginning farmers, who often depend on farmers markets, are at risk of being knocked out of business by the pandemic.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly by The Con­ver­sa­tion on March 25 and is repub­lished here­un­der a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

The famil­iar sight of week­end shop­pers brush­ing shoul­ders at farm­ers mar­kets across the U.S. is under threat from the coro­n­avirus and fears of its spread.

In Seat­tle, farm­ers mar­kets have been sus­pend­ed alto­geth­er. In New York state – the epi­cen­ter of the U.S.‘s fight against the virus – they remain open, but res­i­dents are being warned against gath­er­ing in groups and told to prac­tice social dis­tanc­ing.

Such uncer­tain­ty is like­ly to hurt so-called begin­ning farm­ers” – typ­i­cal­ly small­er-scale, start-up oper­a­tions. As an expert in diver­si­fied farm­ing sys­tems, I can see vul­ner­a­ble farm­ers clos­ing down as a result of this cri­sis, and this could have a knock-on effect on the long-term food sup­ply chain.

Vibrant com­mu­ni­ty

Near­ly 30% of U.S. farms are run by farm­ers who have been in the busi­ness for few­er than 10 years. In com­par­i­son to the gen­er­al farm­ing pop­u­la­tion, begin­ning farm­ers are more like­ly to be women, peo­ple of col­or and mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.

They also have an aver­age age of 46 – more than 10 years low­er than the gen­er­al farmer population’s aver­age age of 57.5.

Begin­ning farm­ers form a vibrant and diverse part of the U.S. farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty. How­ev­er, they are also among the most eco­nom­i­cal­ly vul­ner­a­ble of farm­ers. Since they are just start­ing out, they are often still for­mu­lat­ing busi­ness plans, bal­anc­ing farm finances, cre­at­ing new mar­ket­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties and estab­lish­ing their farms’ viability.

They are also less like­ly to farm com­mod­i­ty prod­ucts – crops such as corn, soy­beans and wheat. Instead, they tend to focus on diver­si­fied fruits and veg­etable crops, such as heir­loom toma­toes, green beans and blue­ber­ries, depend­ing upon the cli­mate and soil conditions.

Farm to table

Begin­ner farm­ers also tend to find it hard­er to access cap­i­tal invest­ments or fed­er­al loan oppor­tu­ni­ties that would pro­vide sup­port dur­ing inclement weath­er or a pan­dem­ic lockdown.

Clear­ly, this makes the more than 900,000 begin­ning farm­ers in the U.S. at risk from poten­tial clo­sures of farm­ers mar­kets and farm-to-table restau­rants due to coro­n­avirus restrictions.

Begin­ning farm­ers typ­i­cal­ly farm on small acres of land, with a diverse array of crops, and sell to non­tra­di­tion­al sup­ply chains, instead of large gro­cery stores.

Many small-scale begin­ning farm­ers have found suc­cess in the past decade due to the public’s increased inter­est in con­sum­ing local food. That has made farm­ers mar­kets and com­mu­ni­ty-sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture impor­tant sup­ply out­lets. The val­ue of sales of local food and prod­ucts direct to con­sumers has more than dou­bled between 2012 and 2017.

These niche mar­kets have increased engage­ment between farm­ers and con­sumers. The sup­ply chain is based on local farm­ers mod­i­fy­ing what they farm based on local con­sumer needs. This increased inter­ac­tion has ben­e­fit­ed both par­ties, but it has also left the sys­tem vul­ner­a­ble to the real­i­ties of deal­ing with the cur­rent pandemic.

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic puts these small­er busi­ness­es at great risk amid uncer­tain­ty about whether farm­ers mar­kets will remain open.

The added chal­lenge for farm­ers also per­tains to their busi­ness mod­el. Farms incur near­ly all of their costs at the begin­ning of the grow­ing sea­son when farm­ers are pur­chas­ing seeds, grow­ing seedlings and prepar­ing the land. With­out a mar­ket in place for these farm­ers, they will be more at risk of los­ing their business.

It is also much hard­er for small-scale farm­ers to get con­tracts to sell into large gro­cery stores, so they will be dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by any lengthy shut­down of restau­rants or farm­ers markets.

Grow­ing hope

A hope­ful sign is that some places, such as Cal­i­for­nia, have deemed farm­ers mar­kets essen­tial places where peo­ple can go to pur­chase food.

Farm­ers mar­kets can be safe places for peo­ple to go to pick up local prod­ucts at a min­i­mum risk if pro­to­cols are put in place to increase social dis­tance and reduced han­dling of prod­ucts, such as order­ing online and then prepack­ag­ing the prod­ucts into one box or bag per customer.

Most small-scale begin­ning farm­ers will have few options for mar­ket­ing with­out the direct sales of their prod­ucts to con­sumers. With­out them, farm­ing busi­ness­es will decrease, impact­ing the capa­bil­i­ty of grow­ers in the U.S. of pro­vid­ing enough food, fiber, and flow­ers in the future.

There are some glim­mers of hope for begin­ning farm­ers. By their very nature, they may have had to be cre­ative in iden­ti­fy­ing new oppor­tu­ni­ties and inno­v­a­tive in their mar­ket­ing approach – qual­i­ties that might make them innate­ly pre­pared to adapt to the new con­di­tions, such as mov­ing their busi­ness mod­el to online sales. What they need now is for soci­ety to ensure that some type of sup­ply chain is in place for them to be able to cap­ture the cur­rent demand.

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