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Farming in the Age of Coronavirus

As a farmer, I’m always trying to plan for the unexpected. A late spring hail shreds the leafy greens, a rainy market day puts us behind our sales goal, deer take one bite out of every head of cabbage. Farmers have straightforward fixes for these problems – crop diversity, multiple sales avenues, deer fences – but coronavirus tests the limits of our planning and our preparedness, as it has in nearly every part of society.

My partner and I own Mighty Soil Farm in the Central UP, meaning we have time to change plans, to see what farmers in the thick of spring markets have done to adapt to the moment. Our farming mentors, who own Evening Song Farm in Vermont, moved to a CSA-only farm, hugely increasing their CSA membership, and eliminating physical contact with customers. At Frog Holler Farm in Brooklyn, MI, where I first got hooked on market farming, the King family has set up online ordering, and continues to adapt to the closing of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.

This crisis lays bare the problems associated with a national food system reliant on exploited migrant labor and complicated supply chains and gives new energy to the local food movement. Farmers markets around Michigan and the nation have either closed or made drastic changes to how they operate. Spacing vendors farther apart, rearranging the market to work as a drive-through for pre-order pickup, limiting vendors to farmers and food producers only – these strategies all keep customers and vendors safer. “Silver lining” is a problematic term at a time like this, let’s instead say we’re in a moment of forced opportunity. Small farmers have to find new ways to connect with customers, and the methods we develop and use through this crisis will largely make access to local food much easier.

Moving to online ordering gives us a benefit of wholesale – harvesting only what we sell – while still giving us our retail price. CSA’s may regain popularity they’ve lost in recent years. Local food is being recognized as safer, with only a few people handling it from harvest to customer. Farmers in my community have come together (virtually, of course), working cooperatively to find solutions to the current challenges. The local food movement may emerge stronger from this crisis.

Despite physical distancing, the strategies for keeping local food systems robust throughout the pandemic show that the community will see us through. Most people won’t get to the other side of coronavirus without being touched by it, and too many won’t get to the other side of it at all. Let’s continue, throughout and beyond this time, to act in solidarity with each other, finding solutions for a better way forward. I can’t wait to go to the first bustling Downtown Marquette Farmers Market at the end of this, but until then I’ll try to embrace the changes, and balance the stress of the times with the joy of growing food.

Joe Newman and his fiance, Kate Debs, are co-owners of Mighty Soil Farm located in Chatham in the Upper Peninsula. If you or someone you know needs fresh veggies in their neck of the woods, they still have CSA shares available. Learn more on their website: https://mightysoilfarm.com/csa

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