Feeding Nevada County: How local farmers, ranchers are adapting to serve the community during the coronavirus crisis
Special to The Union
Concerns about our food supply are getting national attention. Many farmers and ranchers are facing pandemic-related staff shortages and abrupt loss of markets. As a result, some agricultural businesses are in jeopardy and fresh food has been going to waste during this time when people need it the most.
Broken Supply Chain
According to a recent report from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, farms nationwide stand to lose $1.32 billion from March to May this year as farmers are dumping fresh milk and plowing vegetables back into the soil. The reasons are harvesting and distribution, as farm workers cannot effectively socially distance and many large corporate farms rely on migrant workers to harvest their crops. Under the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, payroll protection does not extend to undocumented migrant workers, who make up a large portion of the workforce on these farms, and these large agri-businesses are well over the 500 employee threshold to qualify for the loan. In addition, for those large farms, half of the food grown in the U.S. is reserved for restaurants, schools, stadiums, theme parks and cruise ships, all of which are shuttered temporarily due to COVID-19.
Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat producers in the U.S., recently announced that because of the closure of meat processing plants due to heightened COVID-19 outbreaks in the facilities, that millions of animals will be euthanized rather than processed and packaged for consumption. Another U.S. meat giant, Smithfield Foods, also had to close due to a massive COVID-19 outbreak which affected over 700 employees in its South Dakota plant. In a press release, Tyson Foods stated that “Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”
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Here in Nevada County, the impact of COVID-19 on our local farmers and ranchers has been quite a different story, largely due to the benefits of operating in a local economy with strong community ties.
“Small farms who sell directly to local communities haven’t had many of the struggles that other farmers are facing with COVID,” says Molly Nakahara, director of Sierra Harvest’s Farm Institute Program. “Many local farmers have strong relationships with the customers who, through investing in their products, have helped them grow their business over the years. Now, the farmers are there for the customers, providing new options like pre-packaging or online ordering to help keep the flow of local food going from farm to customer. This two-way relationship between farmer and customer is one of the reasons why small-scale agriculture creates community resilience.”
Most of our Nevada County farms and ranches are small, community based operations.
“For the growers that have direct-to-consumer business plans, not too much has changed with COVID, though it is early in the season,” says Chris DeNijs, Nevada County agricultural commissioner. “I am concerned about the businesses that rely heavily on restaurant sales.” He has been helping some of these businesses take advantage of farm stands and other opportunities to sell direct to their customers.
Ciara Shapiro who operates AM Ranch with her husband Michael Shapiro, is one of those ranchers who rely heavily on restaurant sales.
“It was really hard and scary when COVID hit because we had a lot of animals on the ground, ready to go to restaurants,” she said.
Ciara and Michael had to move fast to shift how and where their meats were butchered so it could be packaged and sold directly to consumers, and then create a new website for an online store. The outcome of their efforts so far looks encouraging.
“We have reached a lot of new customers, especially those who are feeling insecure about going to the store or wanting to secure a reliable source of meat,” Ciara said. “We’ve had a lot of great feedback from the community. This experience has opened our eyes of new ways to operate and sell to customers, and in case this ever happens again, we have a back-up plan to keep the business going and keep people fed.”
Jim Gates of Nevada County Free Range Beef sells the meat from his cattle in bulk, allowing people to purchase a quarter, half, or full cow butchered and ready for the freezer. He is already sold out for the season. Other ranches are seeing increased business, as well. Cosmic Roots Ranch, whose motto is “The most loved meat you’ll ever eat,” offers Mangalitsa pork, pheasant, and eggs, and in addition to their daily farm stand, owner Ellen Olsen offers free delivery with no minimum. She says that business is booming right now and that people are appreciating now more than ever the fact that we have healthy, local food available.
“Thank you to the people of Nevada County for all of the support. It’s been amazing how many new people I have met over the past couple of weeks who want good local food,” Ellen said. “Everyone has been very nice and so grateful that we are open. I’ve never been thanked so much for being a farmer in my entire life.”
Family Friendly Farms has been serving Nevada County and beyond for the past decade. The family works hard to sustainably raise grass fed beef and lamb, pasture raised pork, and free range chicken that is all non-GMO, corn free and soy free, with no hormones, no antibiotics, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Because of COVID-19, the family packs and delivers all products with full masks and gloves to make sure that everything is safe and protected. There is minimal handling, everything goes straight from the farm to the butcher to the freezer. Right now, Family Friendly Farms is offering free home deliveries for any orders over $100 for local residents in the greater Grass Valley area.
“We have tripled our harvest schedule so that we have plenty of meat for everyone in this time of need,” owner Phil Zeiter said. “We deliver our products everywhere, but our heart is here in the county. We have some close and wonderful relationships with our local customers.”
One of the items that we have seen shortages of in grocery stores is flour. Bread baking is trending on social media, and as a result, flour is as precious a commodity right now as toilet paper. Early Bird Farm partners with other Northern California grain farmers to provide the best available wheat, corn, rye, rice, and other grains, and each order (with a 10-pound minimum) is milled fresh and available to you the day it is ordered. Even Whole Foods has contacted owner Drew Speroni to supply them with grains and flour. Early Bird Farm also offers an organic vegetable CSA, but it is already sold out for the season.
Tim Van Wagner of First Rain Farm is also seeing an increased demand from the community for local food.
“Our season is going smoothly so far. We will know what sales will look like when we start harvesting around mid- to late May,” he said. “The crops look good, though, and we’ve had record milk sales. We just sold out in the last two days.”
Stone’s Throw Farm in Colfax now offers online ordering for farm boxes, eggs and flowers, so you can make purchases at home and simply pick it up at the farm. Starbright Acres Family Farm offers online purchases for its farm stand and veggie starts, so you can easily pick up what you need.
While some agricultural businesses like vineyards and cow/calf operations may face bigger challenges later in the season as they rely more heavily on labor and purchasing from outside the county, the COVID-19 crisis may indeed have some positives impact on local agriculture.
“COVID is bringing greater awareness to consumers about where their food comes from. It’s giving Nevada County growers an opportunity to shine, to show that they can produce healthy, nutritious food that is better than what you will find in chain grocery stores,” said DeNijs. “When all this is done, we will have a new outlook of how things can be done in Nevada County. Our growers are nimble and will be able to adapt and survive, and that makes me feel hopeful for the future.”
Support the farmers and ranchers who are working harder than ever to support our community! Check out the Nevada City or Grass Valley Farmers Markets this weekend, or visit http://www.nevadacountygrown.org/view/food-farm-directory or http://www.sierraharvest.org/connect/we-are-here-for-you-resources to find more locally produced food.
Rachel Berry is the engagement director at Sierra Harvest and Valerie Costa is the special sections manager at The Union.
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