Farmer Kenneth Baxter of Lincoln County slices open an heirloom tomato so customers at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market can taste test this sweet variety. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

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April typically heralds the opening of farmers markets in much of North Carolina and the start of the tourist season, which spurs an infusion of fresh local produce into many area restaurants.

But with restaurants shuttered and many farmers markets disrupted due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, farmers are experiencing potentially devastating repercussions.

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According to Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an Asheville-based nonprofit organization that serves as a resource and link for farmers and consumers, Western North Carolina farm sales to restaurants and products sold through some 50 area markets account for more than $16 million in annual revenue.

To bolster its support for the region’s farmers, ASAP conducted an impact survey in late March. The organization hopes that quick action based on the findings will provide some relief.

Dire straits

The survey found that 80% of farmers reported “decreases in customers and sales and an overall loss of income” due to closures and stay-at-home measures during the COVID-19 crisis.

Should the pandemic last two to six months, two-thirds of farmers anticipate financial hardships, including bankruptcy, and 20% say they would need to restructure their business plan and find new market streams, such as online sales and home delivery, or turn to a new profession altogether.

Kendra Topalian-Sinicrope, wholesale manager and director of agritourism at Mills River Creamery in Henderson County, reports a 60% loss in business.

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The creamery’s business model is twofold. The agricultural side of the dairy operation tends to the herd of Jersey cows, a cost, Topalian-Sinicrope points out, that cannot be eliminated.

“It would be a huge danger to the welfare of the cows if we stopped milking them,” she said, citing blocked milk ducts that can lead to infection and even death. “You can’t just turn the valves off.”

The processing side of the business that pasteurizes, packages and distributes the many milk and cream products is in a state of uncertain flux.

“Where we once had a bottling schedule, now everything is in the air,” she said.

“One day we’re waiting to see if we get an order, while other days we’re worried if we have to pour some of it down the drain.”

Addressing pressing needs

ASAP’s study identified four areas of urgency: a need for developing new market outlets, such as online sales; communications support to better connect the public directly with farms; a way to keep farmers markets open and safe; and information and access to financial relief.

ASAP has stepped in to address these needs in various ways.

To help consumers find farms offering online ordering and delivery or pickup options, new search functions have been added to the online version of the Local Food Guide.

ASAP Executive Director Charlie Jackson said, “We’re also looking at creating online stores for farms that don’t have them and creating a shopping cart option through the guide.”

ASAP is also putting safe practices into place to keep farmers markets open.

The new ASAP Farmers Market, open 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays and Thursdays at A-B Tech in Asheville, is designed with social distancing and minimal contact in mind. The market operates with fewer vendors and is tightly controlling the number of shoppers who can walk through at a time. One person at a time is allowed per vendor, and the exchange of goods and money operates on an “honor system,” Jackson said.

“We’re trusting farmers to tell us what they sold and customers to tell us the total of what they bought,” he said. Shoppers must pay online after their visit.

Jackson pointed out all of these measures slow down commerce, but it’s worth the effort considering the alternative.

ASAP is working with many of the region’s farmers market managers to help them navigate similar steps so that they, too, can open their markets safely.

In regard to financial relief efforts, ASAP announced the launch of initiatives last week to support Appalachian farms.

The Appalachian Grown Farmer Relief Fund is raising donations that will go directly to support farmers and markets.

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In addition, a portion of the fund will go toward the Farmers Market COVID-19 Response Grants program, which will provide supplies like masks, hand sanitizer and other costs associated with helping farmers and markets meet public health requirements.

More information on the initiatives is available at asapconnections.org.

Melissa Reardon

Melissa Reardon is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Buncombe County. Email info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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