Essential Personnel - Six US Farmers Talk COVID-19

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Series 2: Farming During COVID, Episode 1

In the two weeks since the last Talk Farm to Me episode, we have all been living a life we had never imagined. My college-age kids are home, taking classes on Zoom. My husband is working remotely. We are keeping our distance and washing our hands incessantly. We watch devastating global news and skyrocketing numbers of infections and death. It's overwhelming.


In the midst of all of this, I reached out to a slew of farmers from across the US and had such interesting, inspiring and meaningful conversations with six of them -- some small, some large, some produce only, some meat and produce, some older, some younger, some new to farming, some lifelong farmers. It's so interesting to hear how they are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in their own communities. They are creative and so, so essential. I hope you enjoy meeting them as much as I did.


As we are all finding ways to work differently, podcasting is no exception. I usually meet face-to-face with farmers. For this episode, because no one wants to meet face-to-face, and because these farmers are all far from me and from one another, I interviewed them over the phone. I thought I would note that this presents some tricky tech and a lot of coordination and cooperation. Each farmer, except one, recorded his or her own side of the conversation and sent it to me. I also recorded as a back up, which was fortunate because one of the farmer's recording device did not work. I recorded my part in my pick up truck, which is a pretty quiet studio -- and a place where I don't have to ask my entire household -- including the dog -- to remain silent. Just thought I would mention it.


I know we are all guzzling so much COVID-19 news all the time, that it'd be nice for a break. I think you will find some rays of light in hearing from these farmers. But if you need a total break, please catch up on the other Talk Farm to Me episodes. Each of those farmers -- Jennifer Grossman, Peter Mauer, Vincent Cuneo, Luke Snobeck, Cyndi Wright, Lester Bourke, Joe and Jackie Evans and Sherry Shaver and Tyler Shaver -- have a powerful story to tell about what they do. And if you are in their area, reach out to them please. Cyndi and Lester's farmstead at Dirty Girl Farm is open for business and has the most delicious cheese and meat available. Joe and Jackie Evans have eggs galore for sale, you just have to go and pick them up. And if you give Sherry some notice, you can have fresh trout for supper, cleaned and deboned.


Talk Farm to Me is a great way to keep up with farmers, but I encourage you to reach out to these essential people in our communities to appreciate them and to eat what they grow.


Stay safe. Be well. Take a long walk.


XOXO Farm Girl


PS I will update this post soon with a full transcript of the episode. For now, just have a listen. A gallery of the farms is below. Gorgeous.


Farmstock Farm -- Kingston, New York

Footprint Farm -- Starksboro, Vermont

James Ranch -- Durango, Colorado

Soul Fire Farm -- Petersburg, New York

Ten Mothers Farm -- Cedar Grove, North Carolina

Whitehurst Heritage Farms -- Brenham, Texas


All photos below were provided to Talk Farm to Me by the farmers themselves. The photos from Ten Mothers Farm were provided by them, Scott Kelly and Farmers Friend. Thank you, all.



SHOW NOTES

MUSIC

All of the music in this episode is by Lobo Loco.

All Night Long (ID 774) and Spencer Bluegrass (ID 1230)

www.musikbrause.de Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd)

SPECIAL THANKS

Always thank you to the amazing farmers who said "Yes!" to an interview. You are so smart and generous and interesting. And essential doesn't even begin to cover it. Essential you are.


TRANSCRIPT

The following is a full transcript of the show, in case you prefer this format or can't find your headphones or have hearing that is limited in any way. If you can, listen to the farmers. But, if you can't, this is here for you. Please forgive any typos or misspellings.

Talk Farm to Me, Season 1, Episode 6

Essential Personnel - Six Farmers From Across the US Respond to COVID-19


Farm Girl (00:10):

Welcome to Talk Farm to Me. I'm your host, Farm Girl. On Talk Farm to Me, the farmer takes center stage and we find out what they do and how they do it. And no matter how you spend your time, I'm pretty sure you have more in common with farmers than you think. So sit back and relax and I'll bring a farmer and maybe a cow or two right into your living room for a chat.


Farm Girl (00:50):

In the past two weeks since the last Talk Farm to Me episode aired, the global cases of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, have skyrocketed. Globally, tallies have soared from 126,000 to nearly 490,000. Related deaths have gone from 4,600 to more than 22,000 and rising. The numbers are hard to get your head around. In the United States, schools are out, kids are home, parents are home, restaurants and other businesses deemed non-essential are shuttered. Nationally, the number of cases has grown from 1,300 two weeks ago to nearly 70,000 today. It's staggering. Stock market has plummeted and it's sinking deeper on a daily basis. Since the January 21st discovery of the first U.S. coronavirus case, the country has turned itself on end. Supermarket shelves are bare, items like bread, sanitizing wipes, and toilet paper are hard to find at all. Business meetings and college courses are taking place over Zoom as are social gatherings with friends and neighbors. For many, fresh vegetables and healthy cuts of meat are hard to come by, if they are available at all.


Farm Girl (02:17):

This week I connected with six amazing farmers from across the United States, from New York to North Carolina, and Vermont to Texas, and then west to Durango, Colorado. What I found was heartening. Farmers are working together, filling holes left by restaurant closures and bare supermarkets. They are connecting with other farms and with desperate customers. As they respond to community needs, many of them point out how true food security comes when we have a strong local and regional food system. They are hoping that consumers will realize that a local food economy might the most secure way to get food even during normal times. Farmers are, for the first time, being publicly heralded as essential workers and more than ever they're customers, new and old, are recognizing the importance of their work. This entire conversation is at the heart of why I started Talk Farm to Me. Farmers are essential. They need to be recognized and valued by you and me and by society and society systems.


Farm Girl (03:40):

Vegetable farmer Vera Fabian, together with her husband Gordon, runs Ten Mothers Farm in North Carolina. Ten Mothers is named for an old Indian saying that garlic is like 10 mothers for its medicinal properties. Vera and Gordon's farm, now in its fifth year, runs on a CSA model. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. Customers buy a share in the CSA and the farmers provide them with harvests on a regular basis. The share allows the farmers to purchase seeds and to have some predictability to their business.


Vera Fabian (04:23):

We grow over 60 different types of vegetables on a very small space. We grow for 180 CSA families each week. We deliver to mostly people's porches in Hillsborough, our town in Chapel Hill, Carboro and Durham. It's been pretty overwhelming actually. We've been getting phone calls and emails from people asking if they can get into the CSA, asking if we have anything available right now that they can come and buy. Just constant communication from people wanting local food. The irony is that we had already sold all of our CSA shares a month ago and we've been emailing our CSA members just to reassure them like, "Hey, we're here. Spring is here, we're busy, the plants are growing, CSA is on and here are things that we're doing to make sure that the farm and your food supply is safe."


Farm Girl (05:16):

Most of the local restaurants have closed except for some offering curbside takeout. Ten Mothers Farm normally sells to some restaurants, but quickly offered their available vegetables to the community instead.


Vera Fabian (05:30):

We usually sell a little bit to restaurants, but we're figuring out a new plan now that most of our restaurant accounts are closed. Basically, this past week we had some vegetables that we had been planning to sell to restaurants and like I was saying, people had been reaching out, so we just quickly sold all of that direct to customers. We've never experienced this kind of demand.


Farm Girl (05:51):

Vera and Gordon are having to turn customers away, but they are thinking creatively to help them connect with food from other farms.


Vera Fabian (06:00):

I have never felt so motivated to grow more food for more people, but I'm also like, "I don't know, we only have so much capacity. I can't grow food for all of these people that are reaching out." So we are trying to do what we can quickly to send those people to other farms who maybe do need customers right now because they're losing restaurant business or farmer's market business. We're also trying to figure out ways to potentially work with other farms to sort of offer their products through our CSA.


Farm Girl (06:35):

With restaurants closed or operating on a limited basis, farms and chefs are working together to find business and to help the community.


Vera Fabian (06:44):

We're talking to a few of the chefs that we work with. Some of them are trying to figure out creative ways to keep some people employed. One of them is going to be cooking meals for hospital workers and so he's going to be looking for local produce for those, which is amazing. Just last night I was on a conference call with other farmers who are trying to figure out how to do prepared foods added into their CSA boxes, which is really cool, working with chefs, who would otherwise be out of work to prepare, whether it's an added value item, like a sauce or something or actual family style meals, which I thought was a really great idea.


Farm Girl (07:26):

Farms like Ten Mothers farm in North Carolina are responding to a global crisis on a local community level. Vera and Gordon are under a lot of pressure. They feel a tremendous responsibility to provide essential nourishment to their neighbors.


Vera Fabian (07:43):

I'm sure that a lot of farmers have been feeling this the last week or two. It feels like a big responsibility. As a farm right now, we're seeing unprecedented demand and interest. I feel very fortunate and I also feel a big weight to really seize this moment because it feels like a door has opened for local farms and I want to get it right. Everybody's so scared and confused right now, including us farmers. So just this moment where I think that as farmers we have to try to be leaders. It feels like people are looking to us for solutions and I'm seeing this with our customer base, just people really want comfort and a sense of abundance and hope in this moment. And I feel like small local farms can really offer that. And it feels like we have a responsibility to offer that right now.


Farm Girl (08:46):

But this is more than just triage, more than just getting food to people during this particular crisis.


Vera Fabian (08:54):

There's no question that this is going to change how we get food to people. Our hope as farmers has always been to be able to feed more people closer to home. And it feels like maybe this is a time where that might shift and in a way that may last. We'll see. But it feels like people are seeing sort of the weak points in our food supply chain and how vulnerable it is. It really feels like maybe this could be a moment where local food becomes the new normal. I think that we may come out of this stronger in the end. We'll see. It's hard to say and it's hard to say that when it feels like we're in the midst of something tragic, but I think that I can see people really reflecting on their lives and the planet in ways that may lead to some positive change.


Farm Girl (10:05):

On a 57 acre farm in Brenham, Texas, sandwiched between Houston and Austin, farmer Michael Marchand is dealing with similar issues. Whitehurst Farm supplies eggs and chicken, turkey and beef, as well as produce to high-end Houston and Austin restaurants.


Michael Marchand (10:26):

Part of our business is chef-owned higher-end restaurants that appreciate how we grow, what we grow. Our cost is obviously higher to raise animals and to produce produce the way that we do, so they're going to have to pay up to be able to have access to our products. Obviously, now this week, that whole model has shifted. 90 to 95% of our revenue came from restaurant customers.


Farm Girl (10:55):

Michael has a business background. As an entrepreneur, he instinctively structured his farm with the idea of risk in mind. Even though most of his business was to restaurants, he maintained an email list and connected with his community on social media. That proved a smart backup plan.