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Food production during pandemic

Small farms navigate life during COVID-19

Allison Stawara, Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center North Farm coordinator, works with lettuce transplants produced on the farm from seed from a mid-sized company like the ones experiencing shortages. Owners of small farms are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in various ways. (Photo courtesy of Kelsie Dewar, Marquette Food Co-op)

MARQUETTE — Food production doesn’t stop, even during a pandemic.

Switching to a greater online presence has helped, say several local owners of small farms.

However, their livelihoods still have to continue amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Abbey Palmer is the extension educator for Michigan State University at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center. Alex Palzewicz is the local food sales manager and U.P. local food coordinator for Taste the Local Difference and market manager for the U.P. Food Exchange Online Marketplace.

Both have been involved in the issue of promoting local food access amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve started doing these farmer/community check-ins back in March, because Alex and I are a little connected with the farming community,” Palmer said. “We’ve both been connected with farmers markets and through our jobs, and our farmer friends were actually texting us and saying things like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ So much was uncertain back in March and April.”

Palmer said farmers still had a chance to “steer a little bit” because crop farmers, for example, didn’t have crops in the field yet.

So, the check-ins served as a means for farmers to communicate with each other about the adaptations they were making during the pandemic.

Palmer said it started as a group for the U.P. but expanded.

“Through the U.P. Food Exchange, we were able to split up so that three different groups are facilitated in the east, central and west — very different folks who are part of the U.P. Food Exchange, so they get to interact more closely with their farmers, their more immediate area that they know,” she said.

Palmer said that last spring, farmers who supported community-supported agriculture saw an uptick in their sales and an interest from people at a time when grocery stores were turning toward online ordering and delivery.

CSA involves individuals who buy shares at the beginning of the season and receive crops as they’re harvested.

Local farmers turned toward this method as well.

“They were saying, ‘What can we do to take our business online? What can we do to reach people this way?’ And it’s very successful because I’ve heard one farmer say they had a 30% increase in the size of their CSA, so that’s a big bump to the business,” Palmer said.

However, she pointed out that throughout the growing season, farmers saw reduced sales to restaurants.

“A lot of the restaurants that serve local (food) were open, but because of the occasional orders to close restaurants, I think that maybe there was some fluctuation in the market there, but overall, the farms that sell to restaurants remained able to sell to those local restaurants,” Palmer said.

In a National Public Radio feature, Dana Cronin reported that home gardeners throughout the country face problems in sourcing seeds for their spring gardens mostly due to the large demand. COVID-19 gardens, Cronin noted, have been popular during the pandemic since more people work from home and want to grow their own food.

Cronin quoted Nikos Kavanya, a purchaser for Maine-based Fedco Seeds, as saying the problem is not so much a seed shortage but getting the staffing to handle the demand.

Demand in the pandemic is an issue, though, in other ways.

“I work with the U.P. Food Exchange, and just generally have seen a greater demand for local food, obviously, and that still seems to be true, not just in the moment of when the pandemic was really at the height of our vision, but now as well,” Palzewicz said. “People are still thinking about where they’re getting their food, and that seems like it’s going to continue.”

New programs have come to the U.P., she said, such as 10 Cents a Meal.

According to its website, tencentsmichigan.org, the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer increased funding from $575,000 to $2 million in the 2021 budget for the program and expanded it so that in its fifth year, it’s available to schools statewide, including early childhood centers.

The program provides these schools and centers with up to 10 cents per meal in match funding to buy and serve Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables and legumes.

“Consumers want more local food,” Palzewicz said. “There’s more incentive for institutions to opt in.”

How are some farmers handling the pandemic this time of the year when it’s cold?

“A couple of people might be doing micro-greens or they might be doing mushrooms,” Palzewicz said. “There’s some lettuce that I think could be happening in hoop houses a little bit as well. A lot of farmers are selling their storage crops. They’re selling beets and things that have been in storage from earlier in the season.”

Planning and preparation for the upcoming seeding season, she said, is underway now as well.

An online presence helps

Jeff and Leanne Hatfield own Seeds & Spores Family Farm, located in Beaver Grove.

The operation focuses on growing fresh food using healthy and nutrient-rich soil — and that focus continued in 2020, a year unlike any other.

“It’s been an interesting year, certainly,” Jeff Hatfield said.

Additionally, its online store was busier, he said, plus it continued its CSA program that provides members weekly boxes of the season’s best produce.

Members buy shares at the beginning of the year, which provides Seeds & Spores with the funds to buy seeds and supplies as well as pay its crew to start the season.

“That was much more popular as well this year,” he said.

Day-to-operations have evolved, too.

“We’ve had to change things, how we do business on the farm,” Jeff Hatfield said. “We’re wearing masks when we’re harvesting and packing food, but thankfully, our crew, which is 10 people some days, was healthy all season last year, and we just took measures to keep it safe for everybody.”

Going on about a year into the pandemic, Jeff Hatfield reflected on the changes the pandemic has brought to local food access.

“I think it opened some people’s eyes to the fragility of our sort of concentrated food system,” he said. “As meat-packing plants were closed last March and April and things were seemingly unavailable, in that sense, I see it as there being something positive coming out of it as well.”

He said Seeds & Spores again plans to have a presence at the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market this year.

Trevor and Maria Case run Case Country Farm in Chatham, which specializes in pork products that they sell in a variety of markets, including the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market.

“We missed out a lot on the farmers market at the beginning of the year when we couldn’t do that, and even when we could open the farmers market back up, it was a percentage — maybe 40% of our normal sales at the market,” Trevor Case said. “That was a struggle to get through all that.

“There’s more demand for the meat, but it’s not like you can scale a farm within a month or two to catch the boom in the market, so you have to scale up sort of slowly.”

Other issues, he said, include high grain and corn prices, although he doesn’t know how COVID-19 plays into that. He does know that from October until now, grain prices have doubled, which makes it more expensive to feed pigs.

Trevor Case said people buy their farm’s meat “because they know us and because they’ve seen how we do things,” but the Cases can’t have farm tours as they used to, plus there aren’t as many one-on-one experiences either at the farm or at a grocery store.

He said they’re still doing well, having switched to some online sales and reaching out to different avenues, such as putting more wholesale products into stores. He noted they raise piglets until they are ready to go to the butcher, and then they direct-market the pork products.

However, Trevor Case said, “Just like anyone else, I would love to see us get back to normal.”

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