Brian Moore wasn’t sure how the coronavirus pandemic would affect Moore Farm Inc. He continued milking a herd of 130 dairy cattle and planted acres of corn, soy, wheat and barley on his land in Mount Ulla, hoping for the best.
“The price for every commodity took a nosedive,” he says. Even though Moore was earning less for the food he produced, the dairy co-op and feed mill continued purchasing his milk and grains, and he had the capacity on his Rowan County farm to store some harvested grains on-site until prices return to pre-pandemic levels.
Compared to the toll COVID-19 has taken on some farms across the country, Moore knows he has been fortunate.
“For us, everything is still cooking along as normal,” he says.
In the Piedmont region, where the major agricultural operations range from poultry production and grains to diversified vegetable crops, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has farmers racing to keep up with the changing landscape brought on by the pandemic.
While some farmers were forced to euthanize chickens and sell hogs, dump milk or find new outlets for the acres of fruits and vegetables once sold to restaurants that closed due to the virus, others have experienced a different kind of pandemic problem: an overwhelming demand for fresh produce and proteins that was hard to meet.
“COVID-19 affected farmers. Period,” said Kathleen Liang, professor of sustainable agriculture and the director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro.
“Farmers are very resilient, creative and innovative and adapted to the pandemic.”
Small farms, big opportunities
Liang said smaller farms have fared better than larger operations.
To wit, Jessica Evans of Evans Family Farms has struggled to keep up with demand for the grass-fed beef, pastured pork and free-range chickens she raises on her Mount Ulla farm while some large farms have faced unprecedented losses.
Mountaire Farms in Siler City, faced with diminished demand for bulk chickens due to school and restaurant closures, sold discounted chicken during a sale at its plant; and Maxwell Foods, a major hog producer in Goldsboro, announced it would close its plants due to financial losses sustained during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 impacted large, commercial farms in a different way,” Liang says. “Their supply chains are more complicated, and every stage is specialized, and there are more challenges to relying on a variety of labor.”
Chinks in the supply chain prevented large farms from getting meat and monocrops to market, leaving supermarkets with bare shelves and creating panic among consumers who worried about finding staples.
Meatpacking plants, which are clustered around the center of the state, were among the hardest hit agricultural operations. State officials issued guidelines for food processing facilities that included recommended sanitation practices and sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment such as gloves and face masks, but workers reported insufficient precautions that led to massive COVID outbreaks in plants.
North Carolina has reported clusters of hundreds of confirmed cases in meat processing plants in multiple counties.
As news of the outbreaks made headlines — and plant closures led to empty freezer cases at the supermarkets — consumers started Googling where to find local meat and turned to small, local farmers.
“I talked to beef farmers in China Grove whose phones were ringing off the hook,” Liang said of farmers in the community between Salisbury and Kannapolis.
Smaller farmers also benefited from diversification, according to Aaron Moore, N.C. Cooperative Extension area specialized agent for small farms in Union, Stanly and Anson counties.
Instead of selling significant quantities of a single crop like strawberries or peaches to schools or restaurants — and then being stuck for a market when their customers experienced COVID-related closures or supply chains struggled — diversified farmers could establish on-farm sales and roadside stands or attend farmers markets to get their produce to consumers.
“Not a lot has changed on the production side; all of the changes have been on the marketing side,” Moore says.
“COVID forced farmers to switch gears and look at new markets.”
Those changes required some adjustments and expenses that put a strain on small farms with limited budgets.
Adjusting to a new normal
At Good Heart Farm in Pittsboro, Patricia Parker grows diversified vegetable crops such as radishes, lettuce, broccoli, potatoes, onions, squash, sweet potatoes and turnips and sells the just-picked produce at the Pittsboro Farmers Market. Demand for spring Community Supported Agriculture shares hit a fever pitch, and Parker sold out in less than an hour, increasing the number of shares from 65 in 2019 to 85 this spring.
Parker planted more produce and hired two part-time farmhands to meet the demand while adjusting to changes for online ordering and contactless payments. She invested in new software and absorbed the additional merchant fees levied by credit card companies. The cost for the software tops $1,800 a year — a significant expense for a small farm.
“It was not a cost we were planning on, but we had to pivot,” she says.
Parker, who is also a manager at the Pittsboro Farmers Market, implemented changes at the market to accommodate preorders, no-contact pickups, social distancing and mask mandates.
Farmers have also been forced to invest in equipment like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer and often devote extra labor to addressing food safety concerns, packaging produce in individual, pre-labeled plastic bags.
“It forces a farmer who is already strapped for time to figure out the logistics of how to do things like on-farm sales and invest in new materials,” Moore says.
“It’s a significant amount of work and expense.”
Unlike farmers in coastal and mountain communities who often depend on tourism to generate significant portions of their seasonal sales to restaurants, Moore believes the higher population density in the Piedmont made it easier for farmers in the region to tap into a customer base hungry for local food.
In fact, some of the vendors that once traveled significant distances to set a booth up at the Pittsboro Farmers Market decided not to participate this year because they had so much demand close to home, Parker says.
“Our vendors are experiencing much more demand than ever,” she adds. “There are more opportunities for them to connect with consumers in different ways.”
For all of the challenges, Moore hopes COVID might have a positive, lasting impact on North Carolina farmers.
The pandemic, he explains, has helped consumers connect with farmers and better understand — and appreciate — the work they do to get food from farm to table.
“Small farmers who produce local products depend on the local community,” he says. “When there was a struggle in the commercial food supply chain (due to COVID-19), we leaned on local farms, and local farmers stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.”