By Tracy Sweely
Perhaps somewhat prophetically, one of our early blogs in 2012 was about three low-cost or no-cost methods for building resilience into farming operations during challenging environmental conditions, such as during a Zombie Apocalypse. It was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek analogy for the unexpected difficulties of farming and a play on the many zombie apocalypse references in popular culture at the time. The ominous challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic are as close to apocalyptic as many of us have known in our lifetimes and so I was prompted to go back and reread the original post. I was surprised to find how apt it actually turned out to be, as well as how relevant the suggestions still are.
My original blog post focused on methods farmers can use for buffering unstable climatic conditions. I described three methods that were either low-cost or no-cost. They included diversification of crops and varieties, growing regionally appropriate crops and growing crops that store well in the ground or after harvest. While these are still relevant strategies, aside from the additional food safety measures needed, the pandemic has created a suite of economic challenges for small farmers. Primarily in their ability to sell their products at a time when their usual markets have suddenly and unexpectedly evaporated.
While grocery stores necessarily stayed open, initial pandemic lockdowns were especially hard on the farmers markets that small farmers heavily rely upon to sell their produce. Once farmers markets were finally able to open, conditions were solidly in place for limited consumer participation. Reluctance to be in crowds and social distancing measures created conditions for low turnout. But farmers are creative and market organizers responded with strategies that have become the new normal for consumers. Reservations for shopping at farmers markets, and especially curbside pick-up have become effective strategies to which consumers have responded positively.
The pandemic, however, also revealed the effectiveness of another marketing model already used among some small farmers. In my original post, I noted that the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model seemed particularly suited for the zombie apocalypse, as it has also turned out to be for the unique challenges of the pandemic. Farmer’s growing specifically for their CSA members provide a dependable weekly flow of fresh produce all growing season. This wasn’t always the case for supermarkets, with complex and pandemic-compromised supply chains. The CSA’s short supply chain, directly from the farm in an individualized CSA box to the consumer, also provides a hygienic method for delivery.
Most forecasts seem to indicate the pandemic won’t likely end soon, at least not before the beginning of next harvest season. As the overall economy may very well continue to be disrupted in unknown ways, local farms can be a stabilizing economic force, by supplying the benefits of both dependable fresh produce and relatively safe supply chains to consumers. While everyone finds ways to navigate challenges we have, until now, only imagined in fictional apocalyptic worlds, the local food economy is a win-win situation for everyone.