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Farmers Find Opportunity in a Disrupted Food Supply Chain

By Amy Brown
Food Supply Chain

For small-scale farmers across the U.S., silver linings in the novel coronavirus pandemic are hard to come by. But in adjusting to a new reality, some of the country’s food growers are finding new customers, new business models, and a newfound flexibility to ease the pain of a food supply chain in disarray. Shifting toward direct-to-consumer models, rather than selling to restaurants, processors or retailers, these farmers are finding they have to innovate and find a new role within the wider food sector by necessity. But a more diversified food supply chain is expected to make them more resilient post-pandemic.

“Small is beautiful”

“This is one time where small is beautiful. When you’re small you can make these shifts much more easily,” David Mas Masumoto, a third-generation California peach farmer, told the New York Times recently. His 80-acre farm, Masumoto Family Farm, south of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley, is in a good position, he says, because “we’ve always diversified,” selling their fruit not only to restaurants but to wholesale and direct sales as well. Like other farmers across the U.S., he sees community-supported agriculture (CSA) booming in light of the pandemic, with people staying at home eager to get fresh produce delivered weekly to their doorstep.

“Farmers don’t go on furlough,” is how farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio—a 350-acre farm that grew produce exclusively for chefs—put it to the trade magazine Inside F&B recently. With the shutdown of the economy, “overnight our entire customer base was gone,” he told Inside F&B. Within 24 hours, he switched his business from chefs to home cooks, offering produce boxes on his website that ship directly from the farm to consumers.

In addition to the CSA programs, farmers are taking advantage of arrangements where customers pay up front and receive weekly or monthly “shares” throughout the season, or other options such as offering contactless pickup and home delivery. Some farmers are partnering with restaurants to sell their goods, like the 10 Los Angeles restaurants that are selling produce boxes to support local farmers.

An upended food supply chain forces farmers to pivot

As farmers pivot amid the pandemic to sell directly to consumers to cushion potentially devastating losses, many small-scale producers are hoping it is a trend that will outlast the pandemic. That includes the small family-owned cattle ranch Pilaroc Farms in Fayettville, Tennessee. The local meat producer has seen demand skyrocket, largely from hundreds of new customers who have discovered them online; business has never been better, according to farmer Jennie Patrick.

“Farmers have always adapted to difficult situations and now is no different,” says Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which represents farmer and rancher-led organizations, and food and agricultural partners. “Whether it’s adopting more climate-smart agriculture practices or finding ways to grow more food for a growing population, they have always been very resilient. We are hearing countless stories of farmers stepping up to bridge the gap to consumers whether that’s changing their business model to sell direct to consumers, like Pilaroc Farms, or Dairy West launching their Curds and Kindness program that allows surplus milk to be made into cheese, butter and other dairy products instead of being thrown away. Some farmers are also selling directly to supermarket chains, such as Publix, which in turn donates the food to food bank programs such as Feeding America.

According to Fitzgerald, “Farmers are under more scrutiny than ever as consumers start to pay more attention to where their food is coming from during this time of uncertainty.” This trend also dovetails with a spike in consumer interest in more sustainable purchases. A recent survey from the consulting firm Kearney in April showed that 83 percent of consumers considered the environmental impact when making purchases, a significant increase over a year ago. 

There’s plenty of food, but the supply chain needs to recalibrate

The fact that many farmers have had to destroy crops and even animals because of the lack of demand in the market has been widely reported, a painful irony at a time when food banks are overwhelmed. But Fitzgerald says that headlines miss the deeper story of what is happening on the farm and across the U.S. food supply chain.

“While there has been a lot of media coverage of the perceived food shortages, farmers need support in helping the American consumer understand that farmers are still farming and providing our nation’s food supply. The perceived lack of food supply is actually pinch points in the distribution system that are already beginning to work themselves out, so that the crops and livestock that farmers continue to grow and raise can continue to supply nutritious food across our country,” she says.

Still, Fitzgerald acknowledges there will be a rough road ahead, and that the food sector needs to create a blueprint for recovery that looks beyond the current crisis to launch action for the next decade of food and agriculture.

Image credit: LuAnn Hunt/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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