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Sunday July 12, 2020
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Stephanie Willette

The Farmers

With restaurants and markets closed, Covid-19 plants fears-and financial worries.

by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

From the May, 2020 issue

For many local farmers, the first crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic began when restaurants shut down or were compelled to offer abbreviated menus for takeout. The second arrived shortly after, when a most important retail outlet for many of them also closed.

Traditionally, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market blooms in April, when the hardy vendors of winter apples and root vegetables join greenhouse growers bringing the first tomato plants and zinnia seedlings for gardeners looking to get a jump on summer. Not this year.

Governor Whitmer's executive order didn't specifically close farmers markets, since makers and sellers of food are considered essential businesses, but the governor's edict deemed seedlings and flowers nonessential. And, unlike many farmers markets, Ann Arbor's comes under the aegis of the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Commission, whose activities and facilities were all closed in mid-March.

"It's a difficult time for farmers, and every farmer's situation is different," sighs Stephanie Willette, Ann Arbor market manager and owner of Two Tracks Acres, a farm in Grass Lake. "Some have found alternative markets for their produce, some have started online businesses for ordering, some have stands where customers can pay in advance and pick up goods without human interaction, and some have been fortunate and found a market for their produce at Argus Farm Stop, Agricole in Chelsea, or in a cooperative arrangement with other farms. I'm trying to help them make connections."

Willette anticipates that many of her vendors "will find it tough getting through spring" and will be forced to throw out unsold products, plants, and produce. She cites the experience of Wisconsin farmers, who were forced to dump more than 25,000 gallons of milk. Like other local farmers, Willette and her husband plan to grow "fewer flowers, more vegetables." And they've "scrambled to start an online business, with orders picked up on site."

While Willette tries negotiating with the Parks and Recreation Commission to create a farmers market model that won't violate social

...continued below...


distancing regulations, some farmers have been seeking whatever assistance is available. It isn't much.

The American Farmland Trust has launched a Farmer Relief Fund (farmland.org/farmer-relief-fund) that offers cash grants of up to $1,000. Slow Food Huron Valley, a 501(c)3, provides mini-grants up to $500 "to strengthen our region's food system, build community food security, and preserve our culinary heritage." But these grants may be too little and arrive too late to help; the AFT estimates that farmers nationwide may lose as much as $1.3 billion in March and April alone.

---

"There's no shortage of work to do on a farm, but there is a shortage of profit margin," points out Dale Lesser, the fourth generation of his family on Lesser Farms in Scio Twp. Lesser raises beef cattle, chickens, honeybees, hay, corn, and apples on 1,200 acres. "The coronavirus is disrupting the market badly. It's driven milk prices down by 29 percent. Prices of grain are below cost levels--corn is selling for $3, and it costs more than that to raise it. Fertilizer prices have gone up precipitously."

The litany continues: "When restaurants closed, it killed the price of beef. Closed restaurants mean everyone is home grilling hamburgers--that meat comes from older cows versus young steers. My slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania is closed, due to Covid, so my steers can't go to market when they're scheduled. I haven't been paid for them, and I'll have to continue feeding them while they'll continue getting fatter and heavier."

With ethanol plants shut down, his corn crop sales are endangered--"We raise corn to feed our livestock, for export, and to produce ethanol." Ethanol is blended with gasoline, but, with fewer people driving, gas sales have nosedived.

Necessary spring projects have been interrupted. "I get my drain tiles from Chelsea Lumber, and they were closed down--I don't know why, since Menards is open." And, if this isn't enough, President Trump's trade war with China has affected farmers "a great deal." This has threatened his corn sales for export and, directly and indirectly, his beef sales.

On the plus side, right now his daily supply of eggs disappears by noon from his stand on Island Lake Rd., and the honey he harvests from hundreds of hives is selling well--"but that's an extra, not a necessity during times when budgets are tight." Looking ahead, U-M is his biggest customer for his fall apple crop--"If it doesn't open in time, I'll be left eating a lot of apples," he says. "It's hard for farmers to change really quickly, especially when we don't know how long this is going to last.

"I don't think anyone really knows what farmers are going through."

"This year is going to be really rough for us," says Alexandra Cacciari, co-owner of the thirty-acre Seeley Farm on Warren Rd. "Some of our biggest sales opportunities for flowers--Easter, graduations, showers, and weddings--have been postponed or canceled, and Mother's Day and Memorial Day sales opportunities may disappear, too. On top of that, since most restaurants are closed, that very important market for our vegetables has dried up."

A major portion of Seeley Farm's revenue comes from sales at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. In unfortunate timing, just prior to Covid-19, they had decided to change their crop mix from 25 percent flowers and 75 percent vegetables to fifty-fifty. "Now the farmers market is closed, and flower sales have been categorized as nonessential, so I can't sell my flowers or plants--even though Meijer's and other big-box stores can sell them."

She continues to hope the Ann Arbor Farmers Market will reopen, with new regulations, as soon as possible. "I think we can operate it safely, perhaps with one-way traffic and a limited number of shoppers at a time." Meanwhile, she says, she is doing as much as she can to pilot her business away from cut flowers, potted flowers, and seedlings at this late date. "We'll plant more and different vegetables. Green beans, for instance, are customer favorites, but they are labor-intensive to harvest, so we've stayed away from them in the past. But we'll plant them now." She adds, "Unfortunately, I've already paid for a shipment of dahlias, and I have flowers growing in my greenhouses.

"I'm watching with bated breath to hear what will happen in the coming weeks."

---

Karlene Goetz is facing the same challenge. Goetz Family Farm south of Dundee raises seedlings, hanging baskets, and flowers on twenty-five acres and in four greenhouses--"None of which are regarded as essential." Another four greenhouses contain vegetables. "But in the early months of the year--through June--flowers account for 75 percent of our profits," she says. "We don't want to put the public in danger, of course, but we think there are ways we can sell our products safely."

Jill Lada of Green Things Farm on Nixon Rd. echoes her thoughts and concerns. "The future feels very uncertain. The Ann Arbor Farmers Market was the largest portion of our income, although we do okay with direct sales."

Fortunately, before the coronavirus hit, Green Things Farm had spent the winter preparing for its new community-supported agriculture venture (CSA). Customers purchase shares and receive a box of seasonal fruits and vegetables every week.

"Traditionally we've done a fall CSA, but this will be our first year with a spring CSA, as well as our open-air farm stand, and we're partnering with other farms," she explains. Green Things customers can place Internet orders by Thursday night and collect their produce in sanitized containers at the farm on Saturdays. "We're hoping to encourage the public to buy direct from farmers."

Meanwhile, Green Things continues to supply its last two restaurant customers, Spencer and Grange Kitchen, and they deliver produce to Argus Farm Stop. Although the farm totals 100 acres, they cultivate only six acres very intensely, with rapid crop rotation. "That expands our production by 300 percent," Lada says. "We harvest and replant the same day, and we're working to improve more of our soil."

Some farms, either by happenstance or intention, are positioned well. "I'm actually not worried about any negative impact this situation will have on the way I farm or what I plant," says Richard Andres, owner of Tantre Farm outside Chelsea, despite the fact "a significant amount" of his business was generated at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. "We're in the business of growing organic food, and food is an essential commodity," he says. "At a time like this, farmers know that they're helping others."

Since 1993, Andres and his wife, Deb Lentz, have raised between eighty and 100 varieties of vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, and flowers on forty acres, and they raise cows and chickens as well. CSA shares in the past accounted for as much as 50 percent of the farm's sales. Andres expects that percentage will rise this year.

By mid-April, they were beginning to plant. "We raise two to three crops on the land each year, but eight cycles of lettuce and greens, all of them hand-harvested," he says. "This is intensive labor."

Tantre has recently partnered with three other local farmers to expand its CSA program. "I'm not worried," Andres repeats. "Food is an essential component of everyone's life. This current situation makes us all appreciate the essential things in our lives.

"I think people are regaining a local focus, realizing who they are, and what is important in life. We have to help each other out. Until this happened, too many people had lost connections to their neighbors and community. The virus and the presidential election combined have created dialogue about important issues: health care, locally produced products, and above all, environmental concerns.

"Farmers are the most adaptive people--they have to be," he points out. "They're used to adapting to climate conditions, market conditions, market demands, crop conditions. This is a time that offers us a chance to embrace change. It will make us stronger and better. There are important issues on the horizon; we have the opportunity to address them now."

---

White Lotus Farms on W. Liberty Rd. "just happened to be ready for the challenge," says Amy Blondin, managing partner of the farm's creamery. "We had just developed an online system before the stay-in-place regulations went into effect; we launched it that week." Customers order vegetables, greens, breads, and some prepared foods online then collect them--prepaid, prepackaged, and contact-free--on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The Buddhist community acquired fifteen acres in 2007. Ten members cultivate the land, harvest crops, bake breads, milk goats, make cheese, cook meals, and run the sales component.

"We keep adapting," Blondin says. "We plan and replan, trying to respond and adapt quickly to an uncertain future. We feel up for the challenge."

Slow Farm on Whitmore Lake Rd. is a certified organic you-pick farm covering 187 acres of fields, woodlands, and marshes three miles north of downtown. Owner Kim Bayer, a former media and library science employee at U-M, grows eighty crops. "It's unusual to see a certified organic farm open to the public," she says, "but we want to encourage families to come here and see how fruits and vegetables grow and experience a life most have never seen firsthand." She believes the you-pick format will work "because our farm is so large, so social distancing won't be a problem if the regulations are still in effect when our crops ripen."

She's never sold her produce at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, but 90 percent of her restaurant business has disappeared. In partnership with nearby farmers, Bayer has launched an online market, Slow Farm and Friends. She says Slow Farm debit membership cards of $100, $300, or $500 will guarantee $110, $345, or $600 "of the best produce you've ever tasted."

Unlike most other farms, Slow Farm is now a SNAP-authorized vendor, meaning it accepts food assistance cards, and it's been approved for Double-Up Food Bucks, so everyone using their SNAP benefits receives double value on purchases.

"It's a difficult time and also a meaningful time to reflect on the things that are truly the most important in our lives and on our planet," Bayer says. "I think the realization is finally hitting home that without farms, there will be no food. My hope is that we use this turning point ... to shift toward new and better priorities: taking care of each other and taking care of our world."     (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2020.]

 


On April 27, 2020, Kelly Wilson wrote:
Additional resources can be found at -

https://www.localfoodsummit.org/covid19/directory-of-restaurants and at https://www.localdifference.org/find-food-farms/

 
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