Ashley Rodgers had to have faith—even if it was the size of a mustard seed.
The owner of Rodgers Greens and Roots in Douglasville braced herself in mid-March as restaurants that for years had snatched up her crops—Miller Union and C. Ellet’s and St. Cecilia, to name a few—started to close their doors in rapid succession, to wait out the worst of COVID-19. At around the same time, the threat of the virus temporarily shut down the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Buckhead, at which she typically earns about 75 percent of her income in early spring.
Rodgers did her best to adapt. First, she scrambled to set up an online ordering form to draw more of the public to the on-farm produce pickup she already had in place. Then, when the Peachtree Road Farmers Market reopened at the beginning of April after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms deemed it an essential business, Rodgers started offering preorders for pickup at the market.
She was able to rebound from the initially steep loss of income. In April, her revenue was back to a level typical for that time of year. But Rodgers is still taking it day by day, unable to gauge the full effect the pandemic will have on her farm.
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“I’m not going to really feel the full brunt of what this could be doing to the business for another month, when I’m inundated with product and reaching out to everyone and they’re like, Well, we can only take about one-tenth, compared to what they’re used to ordering,” Rodgers says. “I haven’t navigated that yet.”
For local growers, spring typically means the reopening of farmers markets and the reemergence of booming restaurant demand. This year, however, spring was anything but a season of rebirth. Instead, it was a time for farmers—and the organizations designed to support them—to rethink nearly every aspect of what they do with their bounty. Among the biggest challenges to farmers posed by COVID-19, after the loss in volume of business from restaurants: how to safely provide fruits and vegetables both to existing customers and a new crop of buyers.
“We’re seeing shortages in supply chains all around the world and country, but there’s no shortage of local food.”
Holly Hollingsworth, executive director of Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center, knew her market would continue to play a critical role in feeding people and sustaining farms. For her, closing wasn’t an option, even as other metro Atlanta farmers markets delayed opening or temporarily stopped on-site sales. Attendance has been steady, even increasing, she says. “The last thing we needed to do was to see nobody purchasing all this food that had already been planted and grown and was ready to harvest,” Hollingsworth says.
She established precautions to help ensure safety: Freedom Farmers Market shoppers must either use their own hand sanitizer or wash their hands for 20 seconds at stations at the market’s entrance before entering, and Hollingsworth counts to make sure only 50 people are in the market at a time. Booths are more spaced out to help with distancing measures, and vendors must wash or sanitize their hands every hour.
One of the main reasons Katie Hayes, director of Community Farmers Market, kept the organization’s five locations open—though mostly for pickup, with limited walk-up sales—was because they are responsible for 25 percent of all food-stamp sales at farmers markets statewide. That’s especially important now, she says, because applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Georgia have spiked in recent weeks. One of the locations, the Grant Park Farmers Market, resumed in-person shopping on April 26—though with fewer vendors, all of whom are required to wear masks.
“I think people are realizing the importance of local food and how much safer and more accessible it can be during this time,” Hayes says. “We’re seeing shortages in supply chains all around the world and country, but there’s no shortage of local food.”
There is, however, an extra burden placed on growers trying to fulfill the online orders offered by markets.
“There’s already not enough people wanting or willing to work on farms as it is, so farmers just in general are extremely busy, extremely efficient people,” Hollingsworth says. Taking online orders “is just adding another task onto what they already do.”
Eugene Cooke, a grower with Grow Where You Are in the West End, says he would have liked to see the organizations that urged farmers to move to online sales provide more resources to make the transition smoother—such as people to help prepare boxes and set up online shopping platforms. He also worries that shifting to online sales could end up separating farmers from buyers.
“If they want to switch online, do it. We think that’s great,” he says. “But if they want to switch online so that we don’t go to market, we don’t think that’s so great. Because for us as growers, being at the market representing our food is a crucial part of our sales strategy.”
In addition to business challenges, the coronavirus also poses a more personal risk. Rodgers’s main concern is a common one, both among farms and the restaurants that had relied on them: the health of her workers.
“My biggest fear is if one of my employees tells me that they’re sick and then they do have” the virus, she says. “Morally, I’d have to shut down [the farm]. That’s just really scary.”
The virus is a major vulnerability for small farmers, because many of them don’t have the income to provide health insurance, says Alice Rolls, president and CEO of Georgia Organics. The nonprofit works with Kaiser Permanente to give farmers in certain areas free health insurance, but Rolls says it’s not enough. Hayes points out that farmers who sell to the public put their health at risk to provide food. “We have to be conscious of the fact that these are people at the front line,” she says.
Ilana Richards at Levity Farms in Alpharetta is facing a different set of pressures. She already expected an adjustment period after her daughter was born in October. Now, she’s balancing being a new mom with managing what feels like a new farm, considering all the changes she’s had to make.
Over the last few years, she had figured out how much of each crop she needed to grow throughout the year in order to make a business plan. Restaurant sales would have made up 75 to 85 percent of her business this year, had everything gone normally.
“Now, that’s all been thrown to the wind,” she says.
Though she still plans to make restaurant sales a long-term priority, Richards may change her planting strategy for the time being as she leans into other revenue streams, such as selling her produce to distributors who offer vegetable-box programs. Instead of primarily planting specialty crops for chefs, she’s considering focusing on root vegetables and hearty greens that can feed more people.
Still, she wants to make sure she supports chefs, many of whom are still selling food to-go to the public and providing meals to front-line workers and those in need.
At the same time, chefs want to do their part to support farmers.
8Arm chef Maricela Vega says restaurants should contact their growers to see how they can help. After a short stint offering to-go orders, 8Arm temporarily stopped service and launched its Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, offering one-time or subscription boxes of local farm products.
Vega already had spent a year planning the restaurant’s CSA after farmers asked if she would buy their extra produce. When the restaurant’s demand for produce dried up in March because of COVID-19, she launched the CSA early. By providing 150 boxes weekly filled with fruits, vegetables, and farm eggs (with add-on options such as artisan meats, cheeses, bread, coffee, soap, and Vega’s prized tamales), Vega is benefiting the growers who feel like family to her. “Some folks have even said that [money from CSA sales] has allowed them to pay some employees,” she says.
Though farmers can apply for loans and relief programs that address costs like payroll, it’s hard to say whether the available assistance options are enough, says Rolls of Georgia Organics.
“Just like [members of] the restaurant community say some restaurants will not survive this, some farms are not going to survive this,” she says.
Georgia Organics’s Farmer Fund, a donation-based relief effort, might help ease growers’ burdens. Though the fund was originally created to help farmers during natural disasters, Georgia Organics expanded its purpose to include COVID-19 aid and partnered with other local food organizations to raise money during the pandemic. Since March, foundations and the public have donated over $125,000 to the Farmer Fund, says Kim Karris, executive director of Food Well Alliance, one of several organizations that teamed up to expand the fund to offer COVID-19 aid. Atlanta and statewide farmers soon can apply for $1,000 to $2,000 grants from the fund.
“It’s not necessarily a bailout,” Karris says. The farmers “are the ones with the solutions. We’re just helping them do what they do so well, which is pivot and innovate and grow food.”
Food Well Alliance is providing other resources to small metro Atlanta farms, by offering farming tools and equipment, delivering compost, and sending a small team of growers to help farmers prepare their land and plant crops.
“Those people that make up our communities and make our communities so unique will not survive if they’re not supported this year,” says Hayes, the Community Farmers Market executive director. “They need your support now more than ever. Because they might not exist without it.”
This article appears in our June 2020 issue.