Western Ag’s Creative Strategies During COVID-19 Pandemic

August 25, 2020
Photo by Clean Food Farm

Farmers and ranchers in the West have confronted considerable challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic.  They have been dealing with rapidly changing markets, supply chain slowdowns, and shortages. Strongly shifting consumer behaviors and dramatic drops in demand from restaurants and schools required them, as well as farmer organizations, to respond quickly and creatively. 

Responding quickly and creatively has required a lot of hard work and long hours. Along with this hard work, producers still face uncertainty about the future.

Western SARE conducted a survey of our stakeholders in April to get a better idea of the impacts of COVID-19 on the food system. The survey also demonstrated strategies undertaken rapidly to adapt.  We developed a report based on the survey results. Given the valuable information shared, Western SARE followed up with producers and farm organizations who shared their stories with us in more depth.

Changing Markets

Larry Bailey, owner of Clean Food Farm, was well-known at local farmers markets for meeting his mission to “provide organic, high-quality, flavorful and nutrient-dense blueberries and pastured eggs for consumption within a 100 mile radius of Pierce County, Washington.” But when COVID-19 hit, he had to quickly pivot from farmers market and wholesale restaurant sales to on-line direct-to-consumer sales. As a small farmer, finding on-line platforms to use was challenging. So he created his own system and now is sold out of pastured eggs until September.

The typical on-line ordering platforms have been designed for farmers and ranchers with approximately $1+ million per year in revenue and don’t provide discounts for small producers. Larry has 135 customers – enough for him but not enough to effectively use and pay for these platforms.

“I bootstrapped my system using a WordPress website to get me through this year. I have to add and track my product manually and use it for shipping. It does work and I’ve sold subscriptions two months in advance,” says Larry.

Larry’s eggs are rated high due to having three times the typical vitamin E and four times the Omega-3s. As important as that is, Larry markets on flavor, not food chemistry.  With the change in how customers find Clean Food Farm and purchase its products, Larry is finding new ways to connect with people about his values and the quality of his food.

He states, “I did my research and identified who my ideal customer is. She’s female, around 44 years old with children and a full-time career. This was important to learn as previously my customers knew me from the farmers market and I had no way to contact them. I’ve started a blog with a one minute read and created a short video that address my ideal customers’ concerns. I’m being me and I’m connecting.”

Like Clean Food Farm, Mountain Roots Produce in Southwest Colorado quickly changed its markets. Farmer Mike Nolan has been working hard to shift from wholesale markets to CSA boxes, change cropping plans, and build new caterpillar tunnels. It’s all working for him, but it’s tough.

“I’m as tired now as I should be in August,” said Mike in late May.

Farming in Southwest Colorado was already challenging with an on-going drought, and the market channeling changes came close to “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Before COVID-19 hit, Mike had seven acres in production along with cover crops. He is now fallowing some acres, reducing production acres to 3.5. Because he hadn’t yet planted due to snow, he was able to quickly change the farm’s cropping plans. The majority of the crop goes to CSA boxes, with wholesale picking up some as restaurants are slowly opening. The number of CSA subscriptions increased from 70 to 150, with a waiting list.

Mike states, “The CSA program will let us make it through the summer. We have 2.5 acres of storage crops that will also let us get through until restaurants fully open and we get back to normal.”

With the increase in the CSA subscriptions, the farm’s high tunnel was “about to burst at the seams.” Mike and his crew built two more caterpillar tunnels for cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes.

Supporting Farmers and Ranchers

Making Connections

As a leading farmer organization in California, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) quickly changed how they assisted producers as they found their normal supply chains disrupted.

According to CAFF’s Director of Membership and Communications Evan Wiig, their Farm to Market team already had connections with both buyers and sellers. In March they worked to get an idea of what the new needs were and to then use existing relationships to make connections.  These efforts included making one-off connections, doing some matchmaking themselves, or sending distributors a list of farmers when asked.

“This is the work we do on a regular basis but now on steroids,” says Evan.

That was the first wave. A second wave hit in May with the increase in food box programs, specifically federal, state, and local emergency food boxes.  These programs are purchasing product from small farmers and farmers from socially disadvantaged communities.

CAFF has been working for years to get local foods included in disaster relief efforts. Says Evan, “There’s typically a disconnect, such as when local farms were hurting and trying to off-load product during the Santa Rosa fires but emergency relief programs were buying from large distributors.”

Some of COVID-19 emergency programs have panned out better than others, but overall CAFF saw a huge demand. Suddenly the Farm to Market team was scrambling to meet the demand.

“The team is working hard helping the farmers who need it the most.”

Meat Processing

Meat processing facilities started slowing or closing down in April, leading to disruptions in the food chain. Thousands of hogs and chickens were euthanized. They have been bred to the point of not being able to handle weight gained after harvest date, and they couldn’t be harvested in time due to slow downs. Cattle were continuing to get bigger and fatter. Producers get docked on price if the cattle are overweight because the processers will now have fat trim waste.  The facilities also have slower chain speeds due to impacts of COVID-19, such as fewer cutters on the floor, leading to a bottleneck moving cattle from feedlot to processor. This all translates to higher prices for the consumer and lower prices for the producer.

Rancher (and former Administrative Council member) Larry Cundall of Glendo Wyoming says, “Now I will get a 10-20% price reduction on a 3% margin. That is not sustainable. I've got four heifers going to harvest in later August. I could have sold 10 if slaughter facilities were available.”

Efforts are underway to assist ranchers improve their profit margins and provide healthy meat to consumers. One example is 307 Meat Company near Laramie Wyoming.  307 Meat Company will act as both a packing plant for Wyoming ranchers and as a retail shop. Ranchers will now have the opportunity to sell more of their meat direct to the consumer as opposed to feedlots that supply the large packing companies.

Shonda Boyd, a self-taught economist who lives on a hay farm in Wheatland Wyoming, was passionate about strengthening the meat production chain prior to the pandemic. When the meat shortages started, she quickly started a Facebook Group, now called U.S. Meat and Produce Market, to connect consumers and producers. Within one week it grew from a local-hub to statewide-hub to nationwide-hub.

“I want to feed America, I want the people who can’t afford food get food,” says Boyd.

Currently the project is like Craigslist in that people can post what they have and what they want and connect themselves. Ranchers who are involved are hustling and moving product, according to Boyd.

The next step is a map Boyd calls “Amazonian in type” with businesses listed and the ability to add videos, picture, and comments. This type of project will need to have regulation to ensure healthy meat and Boyd is looking for assistance. According to Boyd, consumer interest is strong and the potential is there to move a lot of product.

Technical Assistance

The farm training and incubator organization for limited resource and aspiring organic farmers Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) spent March trying to make sense of rapidly changing conditions, both for their programs and for their farmers, according to Education Program Director Nathan Harkleroad. As an essential service, staff was still coming on-site to help farmers with production, food safety, infrastructure, and marketing. The staff shifted to meeting farmers outside, requiring masks, and setting appointment rather than accept drop-ins.

Most challenging was changing ALBA’s training model. They had to very quickly move to on-line trainings using Zoom and Google Classrooms.

Nathan says, “Farmers really grabbed the opportunity to learn on-line. We asked them to use the app, provided a little training on Zoom, and it has gone very well.” Almost 100% participated in the first Zoom.

Nancy Porto, Community Relations and Environmental Education Officer adds, “I’m so impressed their ability to learn the technology with such short notice.”

Financial Assistance

California FarmLink provides loans to farmers and ranchers, focusing on small-scale, sustainable entrepreneurs. The organization has made 353 loans to farmers and ranchers in 30 of 58 California counties since 2011.

FarmLink leveraged their investment and expertise in lending and business support to quickly assist farmers in need when COVID-19 impacted markets. Since March they have provided 102 forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans totaling more than $2.3 million. They also have provided special emergency loans at 0% interest for two years with no payments for six months.

“Starting in April, we quickly geared up to decipher government relief programs and create new loan products to meet the farming community’s challenges. As we move forward, we are determining how much capital is needed and how to manage such a quick outflow of capital, so we can maximize our impact,” says Executive Director Reggie Knox.

Nancy at ALBA has also been helping farmers take advantage of financial assistance with on-line applications. Since the farmers are busy and need to make money by staying in the field, they don’t have time to sit on hold with an 800 number. There are also language barriers and paperwork hurdles, which Nancy helps mitigate.

The Future

Larry Bailey is going to continue his blog and on-line system, adding more products, until he grows large enough for a commercial platform. He plans to return to selling to local restaurants and an upcoming local on-line store.  He believes catering and value-added products, such as with a future blueberry crop, will allow him to be more profitable. Due to the amount of work, he will likely probably drop farmers market.

“I get my time back with the on-line sales as I move the same amount of our pastured eggs in half the time,” claims Larry.

Mike is watching the demand for CSA subscriptions and attempting to plan for the future. It’s challenging as it’s uncertain where the region will be with COVID-19 and shifting consumer patterns in the fall. He is staying in conversation with the local Farm Bureau and Farmers Union about planning for and meeting local demand.

However, for Mike, the CSA model is not working. He finds it stressful and challenging work. It works for the farm now, and he wants to meet his commitments to local customers so the farm is continuing with the program. In the future the farm may get rid of the tunnels and cut back on the number of crops grown. The future may be in growing storage crops and going back to selling wholesale to restaurants. He’s beginning to have conversations with chefs, working out the cash flow, and will start making changes in October and November.

“We’ll be all right and survive all of this, but it’s been a bit much to handle with extra labor and new protocols while out in the field and making deliveries.”

As for everyone else, it’s hard for CAFF to predict the future impacts on their farmers and their programs. Some crops haven’t come in yet, like apples. If the supply chain is still disrupted with restaurants, employee cafeterias, and schools closed, those growers could be hurt.

“It’s not about a lack of demand for food but how people buy it and are the markets nimble enough,” says Evan.

Evan believes CAFF is positioned well to be nimble; large and organized enough to provide the resources and support needed but small and grassroots enough to shift quickly to meet priorities.

“Whatever happens next we’ll be able to pivot to what is needed in the moment.”

Like all farm organizations, CAFF has other programs that they need to focus on. The organization needs to work on both what is going on today and also focus on other issues like climate change.  Getting people’s attention back to these issues is the challenge.

ALBA would like to return to in-person courses but will adjust to shifting Shelter in Place regulations. The courses are accredited by Hartnell College so ALBA will follow their guidelines in the fall. Nathan says that they have seen an increase in interest for farmer training due to job losses.

“The benefit of on-line courses is that they have been recorded so we can use in them to meet future needs.  Zoom also includes translation so we can offer bi-lingual on-line recordings,” says Nathan.

Read the full survey report

(photo by Clean Food Farm)

Related Locations: West