COVID-19 has caused alarm about food shortages nationwide, but local farmers believe they will be able to pick up where the mega-farms leave off. While attendance has been down, sales and produce are up at local farmers’ markets, according to Laura Hughes, director of market operations for the North Coast Growers’ Association.
“Even though it looks dead, farmers have been doing really well,” Hughes told the Outpost. “I think people are really trying to support farmers.”
She said meats and the staple vegetables (carrots, onions, leafy greens, etc.) have been selling well. To comply with social distancing standards — something Hughes said has been hard to do and plan for in the future — the market stands have been spaced out a bit further than usual and the buying process has also slowed down quite a bit.
Farmers have to select the produce each customer wants and deal with them on a one-on-one basis. To help streamline this, the growers’ association is starting a preorder service, where buyers can order what they would like to get and staff will prepare a box for them to pick up.
“This serves the needs for those who don’t want to shop at the market and the needs of the farmer,” Hughes said, adding that NCGA has been accused of simultaneously not taking enough precautions and of overreacting.
“We are getting guff from both sides,” Hughes said. “As we get further into the season, more farmers will come onto the market, which may be a problem in the future for social distancing,”
To comply with health orders, Hughes is anticipating more control of entrances to the plaza to help with the crowds and lingerers. She also expects demand for local produce will be much higher than the supply. Most stands are selling out during the markets. CalFresh usage is also up.
“Now that a lot of students aren’t in town, we are seeing a consistency of CalFresh shoppers,” Hughes said, adding this has been a good thing for farmers. According to the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Humboldt has 23,111 CalFresh recipients as of April 17, up by more than 3,000 from April 2019.
But Hughes is worried that once more produce starts to ripen, there will be an overabundance due to the lack of space for people to come to the market. So farmers have been diversifying the ways they reach customers. Hughes said some farmers have upped their digital sales by offering services on their websites and the Facebook marketplace, while the more digitally-challenged farmers have resorted to good ol’ fashioned phone calls and increasing their roadside farm stand presence and hours.
“There are a lot of different ways our farmers are adapting and they’re not having a hard time offloading,” Hughes said. She gave a couple of examples, including a nursery owner having her best day in 10 years, and another farmer who sold five months’ worth of poultry in three days.
Hughes said most of the cattle and dairy farmers in Humboldt aren’t a part of the NCGA and have to rely on larger outlets where some of the breakdowns in supply chains are expected to hit in the coming days.
However, Melissa Lema of Western United Dairies wrote to the Outpost stating, “We’ve been seeing a ton of misinformation about what is going on locally and nationwide regarding the food supply and specifically the dairy and meat industries.”
Lema put the Outpost in touch with Cody Nicholson-Stratton with the Foggy Bottom Boys, a certified organic farm located in the Eel River Valley. Nicholson-Stratton primarily produces dairy for cheese (sold exclusively to the Rumiano Cheese Company), but also raises grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as poultry and rabbits, and produces eco-friendly fibers. Nicholson-Stratton said he has noticed a difference in how people are getting their food and a big reduction in food service and school-based demands for their products.
“That has created some stumbling blocks for the dairy industry,” Nicholson-Stratton said.
He said butter and cheese usage is down by about 50 percent for food service needs nationally, but this hasn’t affected Rumiano Cheese Co. just yet. Nicholson-Stratton said that offloading product hasn’t been much of an issue, but he knows of other farms and businesses across the state that are having trouble.
The decreased demand from schools and restaurants hasn’t hindered the ability of some small farms to adapt to local consumer needs. Nicholson-Stratton pointed to how the demand for locally grown products has been a key factor in the longevity of farmers.
“We have a thriving local agriculture industry and we are blessed to have them, and so I don’t see a problem [for food shortages] locally,” he said. “The food is there and you may see a change in the cut you want, but there will be food in the stores. Humboldt has such a bountiful local ag scene that we will always be able to rely on it.”
Ginger Sarvinski, co-owner of Sarvinski Family Farms, also feels that local farmers will be able to meet consumer demand. Sarvinski’s farm produces vegetables, pork, beef and dairy products.
“A lot of our product stays locally,” Sarvinski told the Outpost. “We’re isolated and we’ve heard a lot of good feedback about people wanting our product.”
To get her product out, Sarvinski does delivery services and parks a roadside stand at a number of locations throughout the county. She said she thought about stepping up her production but is holding off for now because of the time needed to focus on her dairy cows. Sarvinski said she doesn’t want there to be any misconceptions or fears about a lack of food being produced by local farmers.
“We have a very good local food shed and we have a lot of vegetables and meats,” she said. “A lot of people have been stepping up and buying locally lately.”