On the night of March 13, farmer Genine Bradwin of Kirsop Farm in Rochester, Washington, had her truck packed with the week’s produce for its drive to the University District farmers market the following morning. Then, just hours before her journey, Bradwin and her fellow vendors received word that the Seattle farmers markets were closed.
Bradwin and other farmers had already seen the drop in purchases from restaurants and lower attendance at farmers markets since the beginning of March, but it wasn’t until that evening that COVID-19 started to have a more direct impact on their livelihoods. Two days after the farmers markets shut down, Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement about a statewide shutdown of restaurants and bars. Within a week, direct-to-business farms like Kirsop lost their primary sales channels.
Stuck with produce packed with nowhere to go, Bradwin made urgent calls to the Central Co-op in Seattle and the Olympia Food Co-op to unload her week’s product. Though Bradwin has a longstanding, positive relationship with these two co-ops, going the wholesale route is typically reserved for the busier summer months when there is an abundance of produce and farms can afford to do case sales at less than full value. That weekend, her lot was sold at a loss, but it was a temporary solution far more favorable than disposing of her produce. (Disclosure: I have purchased produce from Bradwin at Kirsop for my Taiwanese pop-up, Babalio.)
Each year, farms large and small look to past experiences and seasons to map projections. But for local farmers, there is no COVID almanac for the unprecedented changes and perils they’re facing.
Most alarmingly, some rural areas of Washington have now become the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the state, especially in Yakima County (although the situation seems to be improving of late). The spikes prompted Inslee to institute a series of measures meant to address safety concerns in the state’s agriculture industry, and the governor recently warned that many counties may have to reinstitute certain restrictions if COVID-19 cases don’t improve.
That means for small farms, the path forward this summer is still unclear in terms of safety and economic viability.
First-generation farmers Bil Thorne and Katherine Harwell at Sky Island Farms in Humptulips, Washington, had plans to significantly reduce their community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations and lean into wholesale in 2020. But in March, due to the economic effects of the shutdown, the couple reversed course and reopened signups for their CSAs, which grew from a list of 25 to around 145. In doing so, the couple had to scrap and revise their planting schedules to accommodate for lesser quantity, but greater diversity of produce.
Since many Washington farms were still in planting season as the original stay-at-home order was implemented, opportunities existed for some farmers to shift gears. Larger potato farms north of the Columbia Basin could pivot to planting more sweet corn, peas, carrots, and commodity crops, like wheat and hay.
But with a drop in restaurant sales, the potential for excess and loss upon harvest remains a concern. Some restaurants in Washington are opening for limited dine-in service, but with a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, different counties could stay stuck in their current phases or even move backwards. That leaves farms in limbo.
“Our growers are losing so much money. A typical grower, let’s say they grow about 500 acres of potatoes, they have to take out a $2 million loan to farm potatoes, with the anticipation that they’re going to make about $100,000 to $150,000 net profit at the end,” said Washington Potato Commission executive director Chris Voigt. But this year, the farmers can’t sell even half their crops, said Voigt, so making back the loan amount seems increasingly unlikely.
For the potato farmers Voigt works to support, it’s not so much that potatoes aren’t in demand, but that home cooks aren’t frying up french fries at home to replace previous restaurant demand. Its products remain unwashed and unsorted (going straight from the farm to storage), and are often unsuitable for retail sales without going to processing plants first.
Laura Raymond, regional markets program manager at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, points out that smaller farms, like those operating out of local farmers markets, have had to make the immediate shift toward online sales, expanding CSA offerings, and offering delivery to accommodate this changing demand.
“All of these business changes require investment of some kind, whether it’s time or money to invest in new delivery boxes, website design, or delivery drivers,” said Raymond, who notes that those costs were likely incurred earlier in the season, when revenue wasn’t as high as it might be in the summer, the season when most CSAs in Washington launch.
“Upping your delivery from potentially 25 [boxes] to 145 is a huge thing. Instead of being able to deliver in half a day like we were about to do, it is now going to take two days,” said Thorne.
In the past, Thorne and Harwell have operated their 15-acre farm with the help of just one other full-time employee and their teenage kids during the summer. This year, they’ll need to take on another employee to manage the larger amount of CSA subscriptions.
With farmers markets only recently reopening in limited capacity, those CSAs become even more essential. Vendors like Salmonberry Goods, with the help of volunteers and a partnership with farmers, have pivoted from selling pastries to organizing and delivering CSA farm boxes. Similarly, the Seattle Farm Box Collective, started by Jake Cochrane, was founded to deliver CSAs across Seattle in efforts to reconnect farmers to local businesses and people.
But these adjustments have their challenges. For the first time since Kirsop Farm was founded, Bradwin spends more time away from her fields managing online sales and delivery. Kirsop has returned to selling at the University District and Ballard Farmers Markets, which reopened mid-April with strict protocols and restrictions. This means Bradwin has had to take on additional costs of working with a credit card processing company and hiring a crew manager to pack orders for a once-simple sale that used to take a few minutes at the farmers market. And with the configuration and volume of the markets changing, there is a concern about whether the effort will really generate enough revenue to keep operations afloat. In May, Kirsop also resumed sales at West Seattle, Madrona, and Columbia City farmers markets.
Aside from limited sales and reduced operations, many farm owners and workers are also worried about continuing work with the threat of the coronavirus, despite the new health and safety guidelines that Inslee has put into effect, including mandatory face coverings.
“Most farms I talk to want to ensure that their customers and workers are healthy and safe and so are finding ways to implement requirements and best practices to change their operating models, even as it may mean higher operating costs and lower income for them,” said Raymond.
Despite their small operation at Sky Island, Thorne and Harwell take extra precaution in farming during the pandemic. They minimize their trips into town, picking up as much as possible in one trip. They wear full protective gear when entering public establishments and shower when they return home. Though they’ve been able to pivot with CSAs, Thorne hopes to resume wholesale on a larger scale and also fulfill what he believes is one of the main purposes of Sky Island Farm: educating young people.
“Kids would come out on field trips and people came out to check out the farm and learn. That’s a huge part of what we want to do here … but having a pandemic doesn’t really help with that at all. No one really wants to come out anymore, and we can’t have anyone out,” said Thorne.
There has been some government help. In mid-April, the USDA announced its plans for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which will provide financial support to assist agricultural producers who have been impacted by disruption in pricing and market supply chains. This also includes plans to purchase and distribute fruits and vegetables to food banks and nonprofits, as well as community and faith-based organizations.
For Voigt and his community of potato farmers, April was the bottom in terms of sales, but their efforts at distribution and donation have offered some relief for the industry.
“We were concerned we were going to have a billion pounds of excess potatoes. It’s safe to say we have cut that in half. The remaining half, we have made a dent in that as well,” said Voigt.
Along with donation events, the Washington Potato Commission has helped to distribute excess potatoes to processing plants in the Midwest after those farms faced a bout of crop failures. Some potatoes have been distributed to use as cow feed. But the solutions are momentary fixes and its progress fails to resolve larger uncertainties that these farmers will face.
Meanwhile, at the insistence of small farm organizations across the nation, Congress and the Small Business Association (SBA) amended terms to the CARES Act, designed to provide aid and relief for those affected by the economic fallout from COVID-19, extending its protections and offering loan eligibility to farmers. The SBA also reopened EIDL disaster loan applications specifically for agricultural businesses.
But all those efforts may not be enough for smaller farmers in the state.
“I don’t think that most [farmers] are anticipating their restaurant sales to return in a significant way this season, though they are working hard to ensure that our food, beverage, tourism sectors recover in a robust way because they understand that all of their future recovery and success are closely bound together,” said Raymond.
Meanwhile, sales at King County farmers markets since they’ve reopened have been acceptable, but not close to where they would’ve been this time of the year, according to multiple farmers we spoke with. To help boost business and promote more social distancing, the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets organization has recently adopted the use of What’s Good, an online ordering app geared toward farmers’ markets to help alleviate wait times at the stands.
But it has been a difficult adjustment for some farmers like Bradshaw, who had started online sales through her own website, timed to her schedule. To keep her stands at the markets at Columbia City, Madrona, U District, Ballard, and West Seattle, she must adopt a more restrictive deadline for What’s Good orders. Though Bradwin holds out hope that the app could help, it hasn’t brought new customers to her market stands just yet, she says.
“My hope at the beginning, and I still have this hope, is that the people at the farmers market who we’ve lost because they won’t stand in line or they stay home because of legit health concerns, I want to provide a service for them. I want to support that and to offer convenience because they can pick up all their groceries and go,” said Bradwin.
Bradwin, who currently runs her own CSA, fulfills her own online orders, and sets up weekly stands at the farmers markets, believes that juggling all these operations is unsustainable for smaller farmers, in general. Despite their love and dedication to the farmers markets, they may eventually be faced with a gut-wrenching choice. According to Bradwin, some vendors may leave the farmers markets altogether, if the economic upside doesn’t track with the amount of effort that goes into them.
Jennifer Antos, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets, tells Eater Seattle “there has been some attrition, but not a lot,” at the four markets the group oversees, which is mostly due to a cap that Seattle has put on the number of vendors that can be active at one time. “We are committed to adjusting with farmers on the best ways to get their products to consumers. The mission is always to support them.”
“It’s too early to say that we should not do it,” Bradwin says, referring to the new app-based system, which launched three weeks ago. “I think if anything, I’ll be more devoted to What’s Good and I’ll stop attending markets [in person]. At some point, I just want to stop working markets — just drop off my orders, and go straight back to my farm.”