Masked up shoppers at the Anne Arundel County Farmer’s Market in Annapolis (above), and apparently at other markets, have driven sales higher for a number of Chesapeake farmers during the pandemic. (Photos: above and first two below — Doherty; others — Agriberry)
About 7 million acres, or 17 percent, of the Chesapeake watershed is in active agriculture. Protecting agricultural landscapes from development is a primary goal of many land trusts and local, state, and federal conservation programs. In our Marking Milestones report last year, we found over one third of all public sector land conservation dollars go to farmland protection, over $114 million in fiscal year 2019.
Given this, we thought it past time for a look at how the pandemic may be affecting Chesapeake farmers, the people who actually keep the land we work to save in operation. Especially, as having working farms in sustainable production is pretty central to landscape conservation.
Here’s the one part of farming non-farmers don’t often think about: it’s not just about growing or raising, it’s equally about processing and distributing.
The system looks childishly simple in the diagram to the right. And it can be economically efficient when it works. But the pandemic has put a spotlight on what happens when something goes wrong. Who hasn’t read the stories of closed meat-packing plants? Who hasn’t seen the images of milk being dumped because institutional demand plummeted? Who didn’t experience shortages in the grocery store this spring? The country’s food distribution system didn’t collapse, but it buckled under pressure.
Nationally, it’s estimated the average food product travels 1,500 miles from farm to table. Researchers recently modeled the flow of food in the US and developed several maps to illustrate it.
This map shows the flow of food between counties. Lines represent various transit links, such as rail, truck, etc. (Image: Environmental Research Letters (2019), CC BY-SA)
The nine counties here are most central to the overall supply network. A disruption in any of these would ripple across the nation. (Source: Environmental Research Letters (2019), CC BY-SA)
Given the linear system, It’s not hard to see it can be disrupted. And the system also imposes intense pressure for cost-reduction, often pushing all other values, like conservation, safety, farmworker’s health to the side.
So, what about local and regional food distribution? There are direct farm to consumer pathways via farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, on-farm buying, and on-line ordering for pickup. And then there are actual–or potential–networks where farmers sell to a regional distributor to move produce to area markets.
There’s no comprehensive data yet, but anecdotal reports make clear that insecurity this spring over food supplies, and over going into grocery stores, has driven up demand for local foods and direct sales.
P.A. Bowen Farmstead, a 95 acre farm in Prince George’s County Maryland, produces artisan cheese, poultry, pork, and beef, and sells it in the farm store, through on-line ordering for drop-offs at pick up sites, and at the Anne Arundel County Farmer’s Market near Annapolis. Farm Manager Brian Wort (pictured at right) reports that sales have close to tripled this year; while his customers often talk of being bored during the pandemic closures, he’s running flat-out. Brian hoped the initial surge of new customers from the spring shut-downs would last, changing buying patterns to permanently support local, sustainably grown foods. He thinks it appears to have so far.
Oksana Bocharova (pictured at right) is a native of Russia who once worked as an agronomist and production manager on a 5,000-acre collective farm. She later moved to the US and in 2013 bought 7 acres in Chestertown, Maryland to start her own organic farm. Today she sells to CSA subscribers and at multiple farmer’s markets. She reports her sales have at least doubled this year over last, and she’s confident it’s driven by the pandemic.
Anne and Chuck Geyer (in front at right) founded Agriberry Fruit Farm on 25 acres in Hanover County, Virginia in 2008 with the vision of creating a young farm worker training program and specialty fruit farm. They picked the site because of good soils, 4 area high schools and a large population in nearby Richmond. Today, they grow raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums and apples on the land, lease an adjacent 12 acres, and grow strawberries on more land 40 miles away. They learned long ago they had to go to scale to make the business economical.
This year their workforce of 45, including 30 in the young workers program, delivers fruit to 800 CSA subscribers in Richmond, the Northern Neck, and Annapolis, serves 9 farmer’s markets including in the DC metro area, supports an on-line store, and supplies wholesale fruit to individual businesses. By mid-July, their payroll was $36,000 for a two week period. But it’s a family operation, with one of Anne’s sisters doing the books, another running the Annapolis hub, and a niece running Williamsburg.
Here’s something else about Agriberry. Over the year’s they’ve built a network with partnering family farms in the region, from Adams County, Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Chuck Geyer regularly drives to these farms to pick up fruit to add into the Agriberry distribution to CSAs and farmer’s markets.
How has the pandemic impacted Agriberry? Anne Geyer said safety was a priority long before the coronavirus, and early on she saw this was going to be bad. Agriberry masked up on March 10 and all have been picking and supplying in masks and gloves ever since. “It’s hot but we’ve increased hydrate and ventilate breaks in the shade,” says Anne Geyer. On the business side, the pandemic has, well, been positive, driving more customers and sales. The new on-line store, required early by some farmer’s markets, increased business by 15%. CSA subscribers are up and so are market sales. They reached sales of 1 million 4 ounce servings of fruit by mid-July, double what they did in 2018.
These are compelling stories that appear consistent with other anecdotal evidence of the impacts of the pandemic — in this case, positive impacts for these farmers and the people who
can access their harvests. What’s the scale of this overall? Nationally, the Farm Bureau estimates about 8 percent of farms sell foods locally. It’s harder to determine the numbers of farms making direct sales in the watershed, or the impact, but the Chesapeake region is home to hundreds of farmer’s markets; for example, over 100 in Maryland and almost 300 in Virginia.
So could the pandemic stimulate a significant, continuing rise in demand for regionally sourced foods in the Chesapeake region? One sufficient to create and/or strengthen a regional food distribution system that is more secure, safer, and more environmentally sustainable than relying solely on the national system? One that supports conservation of the Chesapeake landscape? Anne Geyer is hopeful that people will continue to see the benefits.
It requires some scale. And some investments. And not only direct distribution to consumers through CSAs and farmer’s markets. We’ll explore this further, and how land conservation organizations are engaged, in our next Lightning Update.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.