Small Farmers Hustle to Address Economic Fallout of Coronavirus

Farmers with direct sales may have to adapt to closed farmers markets and social-distancing rules. Commercial farms were already facing a tough economic forecast.

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On Green Gate Family Farm in Hickory County, Missouri, Katie Nixon is in the middle of spring planting, her busiest season.

Katie has a full workload of farming plus a full-time job off the farm. This year she is also responding to the coronavirus outbreak, which has implications for her certified organic vegetable, flower and bedding-plant farm.

“Sure, we’re concerned about running our operation responsibly right now,” Nixon said. “It’s a difficult time, but there is also a lot of demand for products like ours. We are diligent about food safety and our customers are ready for the spring.”

Green Gate Family Farms is continuing delivery and sales of locally raised farm and food products to Kansas City, 90 miles north of the farm.

“We are encouraging our customers to make advanced purchases through an app,” Nixon said. “We are pre-packaging all of the orders so we can provide drive-up service, hand our products directly to the customers.” 

Many family farms and smaller-scale operations have been using online platforms like Barn2Door to sell their products directly to customers online. 

In addition to the concerns about food safety and best practices during a pandemic, farmers are facing an extended period of depressed farm income and corporate concentration.

A report from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimates that farm sales will decline up to $689 million, resulting in a  payroll drop $103 million. The total economic loss could hit $1.3 billion from now through May. “Without immediate mitigation, we may lose many small, socially disadvantaged, and beginning farms and the important markets they serve,” the report said.  

The report, updated this week, calculates the short-term financial collapse in farmers’ local supply chains due to social distancing, as well as the closure of schools, restaurants and farmers markets.

But farm advocates and mutual aid groups like Farm Aid are organizing to help farmers get through the challenging spring.

“Across the country, the outlets where farmers sell their food are at risk of closing,” wrote Jennifer Fahey, a Farm Aid staff member.

“Farmers markets are making tough decisions about how to navigate the current crisis. Some are being forced to close as bans on social gatherings present obstacles, while other states are recognizing farmers markets and farmers as essential services that can continue to remain open.” 

Yonder Way Farm in Fayetteville, Texas

American Farmland Trust just announced its Farmer Relief Fund, “All monies raised will go directly to farmers,” the trust announced. “The fund will award eligible farmers with cash grants of up to $1,000 each to help them weather the current storm of market disruptions caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The initial focus will be on farms that sell at farmers markets or to restaurants, caterers, schools, stores, or makers who use farm products.”

These are defined as producers with annual gross sales of between $10,000 and $1 million.

Farmer Relief Fund program details and an application form will be posted on the website within 24 hours, the trust stated in a press release. The organization envisions an initial application round extending until April 23, with grants beginning by May 1.

National Family Farm Coalition, National Farmers Union and Rural Advancement Foundation International all addressed their members to offer support and share their strategies moving forward, with the emphasis falling heavily on strengthening supply chains, securing the workforce and reaching out to legislators.

“It’s a tough time for family farms whether they raise cattle, corn or soybeans,” said Wes Shoemyer, a Missouri grain farmer and board member of Family Farm Action. “Cattle prices are way down, in crisis territory, and it doesn’t matter whether you love it or hate it, but ethanol drives corn demand and corn prices.” 

Ethanol prices have recently declined due to global trade wars in the oil market, Shoemyer said. The farmer and former state legislator is worried about farm income declining even more because of imported farm and food products from other countries.

“What we’re seeing right now is that our food system is less diversified and less localized and exceedingly global,” said Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “Our globalized food system has consequences for real people in our economies in general, but also at the expense of, local businesses, local slaughterhouses and packing plants, local healthcare [for rural people].”

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