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Farmers face volatile times amid restaurant closures, grocery shortages

When the Stonington Village Improvement Association announced March 13 that it would not be hosting its regularly scheduled Saturday farmers' market the next day because of concerns around the coronavirus outbreak, Belinda Learned decided to hold her own.

After all, the bills still need to be paid, and her 300-plus chickens aren't going to stop laying eggs.

Learned, owner of Stonyledge Farm in North Stonington, said she texted some of her fellow vendors about her plan for a rogue mini-market in the parking lot, knowing that many of them already had harvested for the market when they got the call that Friday. She also knew some customers might not see the association's posts on social media announcing the closure. 

"We feed a lot of people," she said, adding that she likes knowing she's providing food to people like special education teachers and Pfizer scientists. "I didn't especially need the musicians, you know, it's just a couple of local farmers selling their stuff."

After a week off, the association decided to reopen the Saturday market in a modified capacity, operating in the parking lot with extra space between booths and without music, sampling or ready-to-eat food items.

The state designated farms and farmers markets as essential businesses that can remain open and operate as normal during the public health emergency. But many of the other restrictions put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus, especially the closure of in-house dining at restaurants, are making for a tumultuous beginning of the season. 

"Right now what we're feeling is ... I don't even know what emotion it is, stress or sadness or something, for all of our partners in the local food economy," said Allyson Angelini, owner of Full Heart Farm in Ledyard. "We're sort of in this time of feeling like we need to get prepared but we don't really know what to expect."

She said that in a normal March, she would be processing sign-ups for the farm's community-supported agriculture program and starting to plant the early season crops, though the mild winter has thrown off her schedule. Full Heart's CSA allows members to choose what produce they want every week, and she said that could easily be converted into a pre-packaged share.

Next week, Angelini is launching the Full Heart Farm Collective, an online platform for ordering locally produced food from partnering farms and restaurants that will be available for weekly contactless delivery or pickup. She said the idea initially came to support other food businesses impacted by the pandemic, but it also provides meal options for people with health issues who aren't comfortable going to the grocery store.

Karen Scott, owner of Scott's Yankee Farmer in East Lyme, said they've been working in the greenhouse since March 7, seeding and transplanting vegetables and flowers. She said they're going to keep the same schedule they normally do because they don't know what to expect, though she had to let go some of the workers to limit the number of people in the greenhouses.

The farm stand is slated to open April 17, but she's still considering whether to open it that day just for curbside pickup or to wait a week or two to open in a normal capacity. The first major crop is pick-your-own strawberries in June, and depending on how long the restrictions go, the farm might have to switch to pre-packaged berries that customers order and pay for online.

Scott said it was probably the best time of year for all this to happen, since they don't leave the farm property much. Most of their supplies are delivered, though she's had to get creative with using what she has and ordering in advance because of the shipping delays.

Farm stand business up

Educators with the University of Connecticut Extension, which provides agricultural outreach services to farmers and the general public, said they aren't seeing an abnormal volume of calls specifically related to the outbreak, as farms still need to prepare as normal for the upcoming growing season.

"Fruit growers are continuing what they need to do, finish pruning, fertilizing, getting ready for bud break and the start of the busy season," said Mary Concklin, who specializes in fruit production and integrated pest management. She said that her farm still is seeding flats of flowers, herbs and vegetables because they don't want to be behind once virus-related restrictions are lifted.

However, she and Shuresh Ghimire, an extension educator who specializes in vegetable production, both said that farms are working with fewer employees as a result of the outbreak. Ghimire said farms he works with are especially concerned about the availability of workers through the H-2A visa program, which allows farms in the U.S. to temporarily employ agricultural workers from other countries.

Since UConn is restricting in-person meetings, he said he's also spending more time preparing fact sheets on product safety and other information, rather than conducting site visits, though he's still meeting remotely with growers.

While the restaurant and school markets have shrunk, Ghimire said farmers who rely on those accounts are finding other ways to sell, either to other farmers who have CSAs or farm stands or by making their own farm stands. Those farmers are seeing increased traffic at their stands, to the point where one farmer he works with said it was becoming difficult to manage.

"It's not good that we are having this outbreak that's changing our lives, but people will realize the importance of local food," he said, adding that consumers are seeing local products as safer than those repeatedly handled and transported long distances.

Chris Bourne, co-owner of Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme, said the drop in restaurant orders is hitting his farm hard, but he's thankful that its regular customers are continuing to visit the farm stand for meat and eggs. As shortages hit grocery stores during the first week of closures, he said the farm saw a lot more customers at the stand. The farm put out hand sanitizer, and to cut down on items customers would have to touch, staff removed calculators and nailed the doors open.

He said the farm had planned to launch an online ordering system by the end of the year but decided to start a rudimentary delivery service now, so customers can still access the farm's products even if they can't visit the stand.

"We're very lucky we deal with a frozen product, so we have it on our side where we can store stuff," Bourne said, noting that he feels for other farmers who can't store their extra products. "We're sad not to have our restaurant accounts, but I feel worse for their employees who don't have employment right now."

"With the economy struggling and a lot of people out of work, it feels like it's time for us to be thinking of creative ways in which we need to be getting food to people this summer," Angelini said. "It feels like now's the time to step up, and we are prepared for this should problems with our current food distribution get interrupted."

An incomplete list of farms and markets open during the outbreak, as well as online resources for ordering from Connecticut farms, is available on the state Department of Agriculture website, bit.ly/CTagFMs.

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