By AFM Contributing Writer: Aimee Whittington Ph.D.
One of the industries most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 2 years has been agriculture. Smallholders produce over 1/3 of the world’s food and, globally, the food supply rests quite literally on their shoulders. In fact, so many farms are run by only one person or one family, most countries asked farmers to provide written instructions on farm operations, in case they contracted COVID. In the United States, 80% of the 2.02 million farms are classified as ‘small’, with a gross income of less than $100,000. Most of that income is derived from selling to stores, schools and restaurants in the producer’s general area. When schools and restaurants shuttered in 2020, many farmers were stuck with extra inventory and nowhere to sell it.
While large chain grocery stores were selling out and resources like food banks were overwhelmed, those local farmers had to choose a next step. After the initial impact died down, small farmers overwhelmingly turned to their communities. And many found success by shifting their business models. Most of those small farms pivoted in one of two ways.
First, some transitioned to, or became exclusively, a ‘closed loop food system’. That’s when a single farm controls the entire food chain. Everything is grown/raised and harvested/butchered on the farm. Then it’s packaged at and sold by the farm. The closed loop system insulates against most of the supply chain issues caused by the pandemic.
Second, while the pandemic certainly reduced some types of demand, it created others at a local level. These local buyers gave many small farms a chance to switch operating models. It worked especially well for farms with CSAs. The disruptions in the supply chain combined with so many people wanting a ‘safer’ source of food and ‘safer’ place to shop, resulted in CSA memberships increasing substantially across the country. Additionally, farms running CSA's were able to look at products which had historically sold well and produce more of those products for local customers.
Lastly, the community value of a market (especially in the open air), can’t be overstated. Especially for those who are high risk or couldn’t, until recently, ensure the safety of small children, farmers’ markets provide an invaluable point of connection. They provide a touchstone of normalcy in a world still too full of uncertainty. Bringing together local producers, local folks and fostering community engagement has, quite possibly, never been more important. We need the small farms. We need the markets. We need each other.
One of the things that makes the Amherst Farmers’ Market special, is the focus on keeping the small farmer at its center. For all of us, navigating the market through the summer of 2020 was both an exhausting and an immensely rewarding experience. The summer of 2021 was slightly easier because we had some idea of what we needed to do. Over the next several newsletters, we’re going to take a more detailed look at the changing landscape of the small farm, with emphasis on Massachusetts. As we get ready for the 2022 season, whatever it may bring.
Happy New Year's!
Bringing you organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, locally-sourced blog posts on a semi-weekly basis from the Amherst Farmers' Market.