But the arrival of COVID-19 has dramatically altered the landscape.
Massachusetts farmers are seeing a significant increase in demand for locally sourced food, a combined response, they say, to the public’s concerns about disruptions to national supply chains and fears of potential exposure to the coronavirus when shopping at grocery stores.
MacKay told Boston.com that over the years at his Holden farm, Lilac Hedge Farm, the membership for his meat CSA has fluctuated up and down. When the pandemic began, MacKay said he and his staff got nervous, uncertain what would happen as winter farmer’s markets began shutting down, since in addition to the CSA, they relied on the markets, home delivery of goods to non-members, and some wholesale accounts to local grocers.
But then, the membership applications and requests for home delivery of their wares “exploded.” Lilac Hedge Farm had about 100 members for their meat CSA in 2019. As of mid-May, the farm has tripled that number.
“It’s been interesting trying to figure it out,” MacKay told Boston.com of adjusting to the demand and trying to address customer needs.
The surge in demand, while welcome, brings along a host of challenges that local producers are grappling with amid the pandemic.
Julie Rawson, head farmer of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre and executive director of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association Massachusetts Chapter, said in her 28 years of running a CSA, there has only been one other time where farm shares sold out before the start of the season.
This year, her farm doubled the size of its CSA to meet the demand as a result of the pandemic.
“A lot of people were desperate,” she told Boston.com. “Some of them not ever really having bought into the local food system and others just remembering that they should get back to it.”
The increase has been “dramatically good” for business, she said, but farmers across the state are struggling to meet the demand. Ramping up labor alone has been a challenge, Rawson said, since not everyone feels comfortable returning or starting to work because of the virus, and travel restrictions have hampered the network of farm workers known as WOOFERS, volunteers who travel and work with organic farmers and growers through a homestay program.
Walden Local Meat Co. has seen many times the business they typically expect, founder and CEO Charley Cummings told Boston.com. The company, which he described as functioning like a “modern milkman for meat,” partners with about 75 farms in New England and New York to produce beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, which are delivered to 20,000 CSA members at their homes from New Jersey to Portland, Maine.
By mid-April, there was a waitlist to become a CSA member with Walden.
“We’re coming up on putting about double out the door what we did pre-crisis,” Cummings said.
‘This is our moment’
Given that they deal with a physical product — living animals that are subject to the “variables and vagaries” of nature — meeting the growth in demand has been a challenge the Walden staff has worked hard to address, feeling they are serving the community in a time of need, he said.
“Our staff has really rallied around the idea that this is our moment, and when I say ‘our,’ I mean local food broadly and local pasture-based farms in particular, as the industrial farm model collapses around us and turns out to be not as reliable as we thought,” Cummings said. “We’re really excited about the idea of demonstrating the resiliency that’s inherent in this more decentralized model of production and distribution.”
Everyone in the local food supply chain is in the same boat, MacKay said: working long hours, taking the challenges one day at time. His farm staff is largely working 12-hour days, with everyone pivoting and adapting to meet demand. Farm kids who worked scooping ice cream in past summers are now learning how to complete delivery routes in Cambridge and Somerville, he said as an example.
“Local farmers are really stepping up to the challenge,” Cumming said. “And I think the folks on our staff are viewing their roles as critical and essential in a time of need and super proud to be serving the community and stepping up in a time of crisis.”
The massive growth in demand for the meat CSA prompted MacKay to up the number of animals they typically have at Lilac Hedge — doubling the number of turkeys and bringing in 150 new piglets — and also to partner with other farmers who are raising more chickens and lambs for them to process.
“The good thing about the CSA is its six-month commitment, which can be a lot for some people but it also means we have six months to fulfill that,” MacKay said. “So we’re able to plan well enough ahead that we’re able to add more broiler [chickens] and pigs, knowing that if someone is doing the CSA, the last share that they’re getting is going to be in the fall time, which we’re still processing. So it gives us a little more time to be able to plan for stuff like that.”
They also added items they don’t typically carry, like seafood, dairy, and fresh produce, partnering with other local providers and farms to offer the new items in response to customer interest.
“What we’re struggling with a little bit has been getting processing now at this point,” MacKay said. “We work with a couple slaughterhouses that we’ve had very long-standing relationships with and they’re great to work with. But what we’re kind of finding in the process is that slaughterhouses are getting fairly inundated now.”
Usually, it is easier to get slaughter dates at the local facilities this time of year, with any bottlenecks typically occurring in the fall.
But the New England slaughterhouses are operating at peak capacity, with all the demand as large processors have shut down nationwide due to virus outbreaks at the plants, MacKay said. Local slaughterhouses, Cummings pointed, may process 100 to 120 animals a week, compared to a factory plant that might process 20,000 pigs in a day.
MacKay started making daily calls just to see where appointments stand, since he’s had a few pushed back a week at a time. He’s also added to his list of processors, looking to meet customer demand, which he suspects has reached its peak and will start to slow in the coming weeks as meat becomes more available in grocery stores.
“The large processors shutting down is definitely affecting the smaller people,” he said. “The large processors means there’s not food in the grocery store. And people still need meat to buy, so they’re turning to their local farmer a lot more, which is awesome. But it’s created a lot more demand for local meat, so that means more people are processing in the smaller slaughterhouses.”
Overall, the farmer said the small slaughterhouses in New England are doing well to adapt to the demand while ensuring safety for both consumers and their employees.
Cummings agreed, emphasizing the resiliency of the local food systems and benefits for the health and safety for workers, as well as the individual care and attention paid to animals at smaller plants, like the one co-owned and operated by Walden Meat Co., compared to the larger processors.
Neither snow nor rain nor #Covid_19 will stop our crew from delivering for our member families in the face of uncertainty and anxiety. We are here for you. We are scared too, but we will not yield!!!
A lasting change?
While going full speed to address the daily demand, the farmers and local food businesses also face the challenge of figuring out how long they can rely on an increased customer base and interest in their products, looking beyond the immediate crisis.
It’s unknown, the three business owners agreed, if the pandemic has made a lasting change in how people buy their food.
MacKay said he’s hopeful that people won’t forget the small farmers when “all this is said and done,” and that there will be some long-term change in favor of local food producers and CSAs.
“We’re really hoping that, say, a quarter of the new people that have found local farms and local food continue to support us and other small farms around,” MacKay said.
Cummings said his company is also taking things one day at a time, with a short-term focus on building out more capacity for home delivery and at the slaughterhouse they co-own and operate. The hope at Walden Meat Co. is that everyone on the waitlist for a membership will get an activated share in the next few months. But there are eyes on the horizon, and plans to continue to expand the business and take on more people amid hope that the new customers will stay on past the pandemic.
“There was already a trend toward local food that really seems like it’s catalyzed into a more coherent movement, and is sort of a paradigm shift that just got accelerated by five or ten years as a result of the crisis,” he said. “So our view is that no matter what the reason was people came in the door in the first place, once you see the benefits to the animals, the employees, the community, the environment and actually taste the product, it tastes so different that there’s no turning back.”
MacKay and Rawson said they’ve both gotten a lot of good responses from customers, many saying they plan to stay on after the pandemic.
There’s a lot to be said about knowing where your food is coming from and the farmer who is growing and raising it, MacKay said.
“We’re really particular about how we raise animals, and even the slaughterhouses that we’re working with, our primary slaughterhouse … was designed by Temple Grandin; she’s world renowned in humane slaughter oversight,” he said. “And I think our customers appreciate that we’re taking the extra step. Not only in raising the animals, but in ensuring that they’re harvested humanely as well.”
The more people make that connection between the food they’re eating and the people behind getting it to the table, the more likely they are to make that shift to local, the two farmers agreed.
In addition to reaching out to farmers directly, Rawson said a lot more people seem to be working towards being more self-reliant with their food supply, starting gardens of their own.
NOFA has seen a huge increase in the attendance — virtually — for webinars and online farm events focused on how to grow your own food, she said.
“I think that a lot of people that are just panic buying and seeing this as a temporary fix are probably going to go back to their old ways,” she said. “But I think a lot of people are going to make changes and stick with them too. So I think overall, there are going to be more people interested in good local food and there are going to be more people growing it. And that’s great.”