A 4-H youth shares his family’s struggles on the farm during the coronavirus pandemic
I am an 18-year-old farmer in Southern Virginia, and the past few months have been the hardest in the lives of my family and me. My experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is showing me major weaknesses in America around the sustainability of our food system and support for the agriculture industry by the public. I think this stems from an overall lack of knowledge about the ag industry and those who work in it. But amid this, I see an opportunity to rapidly innovate and improve our rural communities for the long term.
What is happening to my farm is happening to vegetable farms all over Virginia and the U.S. Small- and medium-sized farms are very dependent on direct public sales. For instance, we may send an order to a local restaurant on Monday, go to a farmer’s market on Wednesday, and have five off-the-farm orders in-between. To meet varying customer demands, we utilize a network of friends and family to deliver and sell crops throughout the region. After the COVID-19 outbreak, these methods of generating income and meeting customer needs were upended.
Six years ago, my farm switched from tobacco to vegetable production, and today it is our only income. Vegetable farming is new to many farmers in my region, as it replaces the receding tobacco industry in Southern Virginia. That means that it does not have the roots to hold on as well during financial storms, such as the one we are facing now.
Farmers markets are our primary and most reliable distribution outlet. With farmers markets we can estimate how much we will make, and we have a customer base that we can depend on. As soon as news of COVID happened in our state, our main income was cut in half. Some markets simply closed or never opened for the spring, or local authorities added requirements for produce being pre-packaged which made it impossible for small farms to comply. Our second biggest source of income was orders from produce hubs that supplied local restaurants and college kitchens. Demand from these outlets either slowed so much that it would not cover the cost of travel or they closed completely.
With our two main sources of revenue disrupted, this left us with a glut of vegetables. Most vegetable crops have a narrow window of about a week to get from harvest and into a consumer’s hands before they are past their prime. If you miss that window, you can lose the entire harvest. Our produce sat idle in the sun, ready and ripe for the picking because of the warm winter. But it had nowhere to go. It is a helpless feeling to see all of your livelihood and hard work slowly rot in front of you.
We did our best to adjust to the rapidly changing environment, and every day feels like it’s still presenting a new challenge. We were one of the lucky farms that had a Facebook presence started years ago, so our customers already knew how to reach us online, but we were struggling to keep up with the online inquiries. I’m thankful that my work as a 4-H Tech Changemaker prepared me to leverage these online tools to help my family in this uncertain time. However, for small family farms like mine, there’s just not the manpower to reach the volume we need to be profitable doing one online pre-order at a time. And for many people in our area, including my farm, we don’t have broadband internet access, so there’s an extra barrier to managing these shifting demands. In part, because of the digital divide, we didn’t have (and still don’t have) the means to communicate to our customers to organize ahead of time enough orders to ensure we’ll make enough money to pay for the gas to get to and from the markets.
We leveraged our Facebook page to reach out to existing customers and let people know what produce we had that was fresh and ready. Soon after, things turned to chaos. I awoke one morning to a woman honking her horn outside our house, and, as I ran out the door, she hollered at me asking whether I had any kale. I spent the next hour helping her stuff trash bags full of Kale.
Kale Lady was just the start of the random people stopping by to see what food we had, but because of our online presence, our customer base was growing. People flooded our farm and many others like it. We started to sell in small amounts, but then it jumped to selling a weeks’ worth of vegetables to customers. One farmer, a friend of ours who lives and sells closer to more populated areas, frantically called one night wanting to buy as much as she could from us to fill her own orders. We welcomed this with open arms, but still our sales were not as much as they had been. This is a huge change from what we have built our farm around. We went from having a reliable source of income to just hoping that people call this week.
Our country was built on agriculture, and my family is proud to be part of that tradition. And we’re used to hard work. What we are not accustomed to is the mental drain we are going through right now. Farm families are overworked and trying to mitigate this emotional and financial damage. But farmers have always found a way to pull through hard times — if they didn’t, none of us would be where we are now.
As I heard one farmer say, “I’ll sell one ‘tader at time if I have to!” This type of perseverance is what I am seeing now in my community. We are adapting rapidly to the situation around us. It is hard physically and mentally and the situation is creating untold financial uncertainty for many farmers.
For every shadow, there is a light. We now do most of our advertising online rather than word of mouth and direct-call to buyers, and we have a larger group of customers than ever before. All things have an upside and a downside. When this is over, some farms may not be anymore — still I believe that many more will come out of this and prove to be stronger than before. Either way, Virginia and our nation as a whole will be stronger if we use this moment in history to innovate and don’t forget that we are strongest when we support and help one another.
I encourage everyone to get out there today and find a local farm that they can buy from. Don’t just rely on your local farmers market but get out there and visit a farm. You can find lots of local farms near you through online map searches and websites like Local Harvest.