Ag in a time of crisis: How NC farmers are changing the way they do business

FILE - In this April 20, 2020, file photo, a farmer is silhouetted by the setting sun as a field is planted near Walford, Iowa. U.S. farmers across the nation leaned more heavily upon the federal government last year to finance their agricultural operations amid low commodity prices and trade disputes, and more of the money they borrowed from taxpayers is now delinquent. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP, File)

RALEGH — The coronavirus has directly impacted the way America’s farmers and ranchers operate and upended much of the nation’s food supply chain. In response, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance program (CFAP) in mid-April, dubbing it the first COVID-19 relief package crafted specifically for agriculture. The $16 billion program includes direct financial support to agriculture and commodities producers who have suffered a five percent-or-greater price decline, or who had losses due to market supply chain disruptions due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Reaction from the farming community has been mixed, as Dr. Barb Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture recently put out a statement saying, “While farmers and ranchers respond to uncertainty, we applaud the USDA for working to distribute relief funds as quickly as possible. There is still tremendous unmet need for agriculture and rural America. Additional resources will be needed to build resiliency for our post-pandemic rural economy.”

One way farmers and ranchers used to suppling the hospitality industry have adapted to the shutdown, is by embracing a movement called community supported agriculture (CSA). CSA’s are food distribution programs that give members access to a share of a farm’s harvest, which is delivered door to door on a weekly basis throughout the farming season. While CSA’s have been around for nearly three decades, the coronavirus has created a surge in their popularity with most cooperatives reporting increased membership and even waiting lists.

Collard greens are for sale at a farmers market in this undated file photo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

CSA’s intrinsic focus on local, fresh ingredients delivered straight to the front door is ideal during a pandemic that has people terrified of going to a grocery store and looking for ways to cut down on people touching their food. The supply chain with a CSA is incredibly short, basically like the farmer harvested the produce and allowed you to come pick it up.

CSAs aren’t limited to produce. Some farmers include the option to buy eggs, bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers or other farm products along with their vegetables. Sometimes several farmers will offer their products together, to offer the widest variety to members. Other farmers set up separate CSAs for a specific industry, like chicken or dairy, and in some cases even non-farming third parties act as middlemen selling boxes of food to individuals within their communities.

“People are staying home and looking for alternative produce methods and food sources,” said John Hammond, International Marketing Specialist for the N..C Department of Agriculture. Hammond has been a key player in helping local farmers and ranchers organize what has become known as Bulk Truckload Chicken Sales across the state. So far, his team has helped host over 150 bulk chicken sales, in which locals travel to a designated spot like the fairgrounds and purchase 30 lb. boxes of chicken that would have been going to restaurants or schools. The chicken comes from local farms such as Case Farms, Mountaire Farms, and House of Raeford. Hammond says the idea started due to dwindling demand from the restaurant and hospitality industries. “In order to keep the supply chain intact we started bulk sales to keep product moving, keep truck drivers employed, and to ultimately get food to the consumer.” Other CSAs in our area include the Produce Box, and Ripe Revival Market which was created specifically in response to COVID-19.

Here in North Carolina, where agriculture is a $78 billion industry, farmers and ranchers have certainly felt the economic hardship caused by the shutdown. Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association says that in a survey they did of area farmers, one third reported their sales decreasing by at least $1,000 per week. “When you have less than $250,000 in annual revenue, that’s a big hit,” he said. These were people whose direct sales were to farmers markets and restaurants, and both have been sources of decreased revenue.

Andrea Ashby, who heads up the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s Public Affairs division says she thinks our state may have fared better than most. But “one area where we are similar to other states is with a loss of milk,” she said.

Homeland Creamery in Guilford County had to dump around 17,000 gallons of milk last month. Unlike other dairy operations that send their milk to a processor before it hits grocery store shelves, Homeland is what is known as an on-farm processor, selling its dairy products to local coffee shops and restaurants. “They had no outlet for their milk,” explains Reid Smith, president of the North Carolina Dairy Producers’ Association. He echoed the sentiment that things had not been as bad here as some other parts of the country. “Milk was dumped out at various farms for about a week maximum,” he said. Smith said he knew of one farm that had to dump out 40,000 gallons but that was based on a problem with the supply chain after a run on fluid milk caused local dairies to overcorrect and manufacture too much milk.

The beef industry has also had to cope with supply chain issues. V. Mac Baldwin, founder of Baldwin Beef Family Farm in Yanceyville says they lost one week of sales to several of the area’s Whole Foods stores where they sell their grass-fed meat. “The bottleneck with the cattle industry has been in the processing. When the cows reach a certain weight, they are finished and need to be slaughtered, but when COVID strikes workers and plants are forced to close down, things get backed up.” Baldwin says that beef farmers are lucky in the sense that when things get bad they just slow feeding the cattle to maintain their size, whereas chickens that are processed at too heavy a weight end up creating a lot of extra waste.

hog farm - north carolina - lawsuit - 2017
In this July 21, 2017, file photo, young hogs owned by Smithfield Foods gather around a water source at a farm in Farmville, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

With reports of hogs being euthanized due to over­supply as processing plants closed, the national media has portrayed the impact on farming as a dire situation. However, as bad as things are, local farmers and ranchers have shown an irrepressible spirit and intense dedication to the people of North Carolina.

Goldsboro’s Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork, which distributes its pork to some of the finest restaurants across the state, reported a 75% decrease in revenue in April. Owner Esther Ivey Nagypal says they had to lay off almost their entire staff but luckily did not have to euthanize any hogs.

While some farmers have decided to work through community supported agriculture programs others, like Cheshire Farms, have come up with creative ways to keep their supplies moving, pivoting from their main role as a successful partner within the state’s thriving farm­-to­-table community. “We put a lot of pork in the freezer and cold storage and we ship nationwide through our website,” says Nagypal. “That business, along with local curbside pickup at our general store, has been a lifeline. It has increased by around 500% from before Covid-19.”