Numerous industries and small businesses have been devastated from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies have had to rebrand or reimagine their entire processes to stay afloat during these difficult times.
Locally we have seen the impacts of a lighter tourist season compared to previous summers. Our lives have been changing as we social distance and slowly dip our toes back into public waters once again after enduring long-lasting quarantines.
Even as the news continues to be dire, there is one sector of our economy that has kept producing through all the recent challenges and that is our local agricultural community.
As the pandemic started to wreak havoc on our nation, our local agricultural community was hit dramatically.
“The supply chain in the beginning had waste since there was a lot of product ready to hit market, but now it is a struggle to decide what should be planted and ordered,” stated Kaitlyn Bentley of Peterson Farms. She noted that these complications may still lead to a lack of certain products in the upcoming months.
“It’s a struggle to try to explain why it is hard for farmers to be able to pick vegetables and their decisions to leave them the field and plow them under,” Ms. Bentley continued.
As COVID-19 virus ravaged routines, spring changed to summer, the most important portion of the calendar year for many farmers. As crops and meats were ready to be brought to markets, fairs, restaurants, farm stands and more, farmers realized a huge shift in their business had to take place.
“We used to do a few festivals through the summer months and into the fall. They have all been canceled. We did camps and those are not happening. Restaurant accounts that we counted on, we do not have any more, including some products that used to go up to Buffalo in a larger market. Some of these restaurants aren’t open as much and some haven’t even opened back up,” stated Sue Abers, owner of Abers Acres.
“I am doing more ‘pick your own’ this year,” Ms. Abers said. “The public is out picking what normally would have been going to other markets.”
“The dairy industry has been impacted due to schools and larger institutions being closed. The fluid milk being sent for those routes had to be dumped,” said Peterson Farms’ representative Kaitlyn Bentley.
“Dairy farmers have seen many market interruptions. They are experiencing lower milk prices at the farm gates. This is because they were selling less products due to restaurants, schools, colleges, and other closings,” said Lisa Kempisty, Agriculture Community Educator of Dairy & Livestock at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County.
“All those packages of milk and dairy products that were going out to restaurants and schools are in larger packages. We had a situation where these plants couldn’t change to smaller packaging overnight and it took a few weeks to settle that out,” stated Ms. Kempisty.
“Unfortunately, dairy farmers are still seeing price stresses of lower milk prices due to COVID-related market situations. Dairy farmers are still struggling right now, but they are resilient,” Ms. Kempisty said.
Another major sector of the local agricultural community is our meat producers. As the pandemic raged on many consumers went through a scare where they left the supermarket empty-handed because of a scarcity of many meat products. It was deemed to be like striking gold if one found a package of a favorite meat at the grocery store.
“When we were in the heaviest portion of the pandemic nationally some meat plants closed down. When consumers walked into the store, they may not have been able to find the meat that they may have wanted. So, they have come to us looking for local meat resources,” indicated Ms. Kempisty.
This rush on local meat products has been noticed frequently among our local market coordinators. The Lakewood Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market Coordinator Bernadette van der Vliet commented on how quickly the meat vendor had sold out in previous weeks.
This positive run on the sale of meats is fantastic but comes with quite a disruption in the planning process for our local meat producers, according to Cooperative Extension staff.
“We have seen some challenges with local meat processing which requires a six-month wait time. Farmers really have to think ahead,” said Ms. Kempisty.
One of the most accessible and enticing ways to reach local farmers is through community farmers’ markets. With vendors all around, brightly colored produce, meats, jellies, and other products surrounding curious buyers, it is a delight to one’s senses. During these challenging times both producers and consumers have had to adapt.
“The rules and regulations are tough. We had to adjust a lot of different things; you can’t touch the produce. It is tough because that’s part of the whole experience. People want to touch, they want to look at the beets, they want to look at the potatoes,’” said Sondra Johnson, Abers Acres stand operator.
Ms. Johnson also said the traffic at the Abers stand for local strawberries was unbelievable. “When we had ‘you pick’ in our strawberry fields, we were just unbelievably busy.”
Determination and a positive outlook are evident in the voice of Bernadette van der Vliet from the Lakewood Farmers’ Market as she explained how things have been very positive this season with an increase in foot traffic.
Another positive outlook came from Linnea Carlson, Jamestown Public Market Manager. “You’re able to meet right with the farmers to learn about how they grew or raised what you are buying. You don’t have to worry about the disruption in the global food supply chain.”
“It’s been great to see the tremendous support for local food and that people want to learn where their food is coming from. I think the silver lining is that people are more aware of their food, where it comes from and why that is important. Also, why buying local can be so impactful in a time like this,” stated Ms. Carlson.
“If you buy at a market you don’t have a middleman; less people touch the product. It’s way safer,” reminded Ms. van der Vliet.
“We have seen an increase in people shopping locally which has been a benefit. We are starting to see more people coming together to help others as best they can,” said Ms. Bentley.
Another positive coming from Peterson Farms in Jamestown is the ability to expand their business to offer an easier customer experience for those who have health issues or are unable to easily reach the farm stand. With the addition of curbside pickup and call-in orders, they are willing to accommodate many situations.
There are many positives that local agricultural leaders have been able to take away from this challenging time.
“I think people are thinking about eating fruits and vegetables to keep their body healthy and their immune system strong with the virus around. When you are paranoid about being exposed to a virus, you want to have your immune system be as strong as it can be,” remarked Ms. Johnson.
As farm owners, stand operators, market managers, and community educators spoke about this topic it was evident that they love what they do. This bump in the road was unforeseen, but the challenge was accepted and they are more than determined to share their products with local consumers.
“Farmers have continued their commitments, passion, and hard work of producing food for our local consumers and their many markets during this pandemic,” stated Ms. Kempisty.
As we look toward brighter days and more prosperity in the regional economy, it is assuring to realize the very capable hands that are leading the way in the local agricultural community.