If you’ve recently noticed changes to the produce section of your grocery store, it probably has some connection to the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on farms around the world. Low inventories for certain produce, combined with plummeting markets and disrupted supply chains, have conspired to create a nightmare scenario for farmers whose crops supply the food that ends up at your dinner table.
This disruption has forced farmers to change their business models, often in more than one way. Here’s a look at how farmers have responded to these unprecedented challenges, and how they’ve managed to keep working to ensure food availability during an urgent time of need.
How the pandemic affects the American farm
The pandemic has created a perfect storm of disruption to the market demand that farmers depend on every year. The mass closures of restaurants, not to mention school cafeterias, has eliminated a crucial source of demand for virtually all agricultural crops, from soybeans and corn to milk and meat.
Even though grocery sales of farm products have surged, many farmers don’t have the existing access to supply chains that purchase those crops and distribute them to grocery stores. As a result, many farmers have been left behind as the produce market shifts dramatically away from restaurants and food services, and toward grocery purchases by individual consumers.
“Milk prices alone have dropped by 25 percent, with other crops experiencing double-digit losses that cut directly into the profits for farms,” says Mike McCormick, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President for Farm Families of Mississippi. “For some farms, the crops they rely on every year have become unprofitable. Crops are at risk of going to waste even as farmers struggle to find opportunities to sell their products and minimize their losses.”
Changing the business model for farms
With their livelihoods at stake, some farms have been aggressive in seeking out new business models and strategies to help them stay afloat during the pandemic. Farmer’s markets and other direct-to-consumer selling models have gained popularity as farmers look to replace the lost income that used to come from wholesale purchases by commercial restaurants.
As communities across the United States see their residents struggle with food insecurity, fundraisers have been set up to purchase crops from farms that can be donated to local food shelves. While farms routinely make these donations to help the under-served members of their communities, the financial strain of the pandemic has put farmers in a similar position of need. Communities have responded by rallying together to provide essential support for local farms, as well as food-insecure community members.
While government assistance has provided some financial support through this difficult period, many farms are predicting that the financial implications of the pandemic will carry on for years to come, affecting both their profits and the business models they use to operate a viable, sustainable farm. Even with this creative thinking, farmers are facing the reality that continued financial struggles could eventually put them out of business.
Protecting farms for the future
Today’s farms aren’t just fighting against the pandemic—they’re also fighting for the future of their business. A prolonged pandemic and continued price depression for major agricultural crops could spell the end for farms that aren’t able to develop a successful business model under mounting financial pressure.
To improve the long-term stability of their businesses, many farms are working to develop the income streams they can directly own, such as farmer’s market sales and creating their own produce stores on their properties.
“When those traditional supply chains and selling channels disappear, farmers are left to find customers on their own,” says Mike McCormick, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President for Farm Families of Mississippi. “It’s a tough challenge to face during a global pandemic, but many local farms aren’t in a position to be picky. They have to create revenue before their crops spoil.”
If you want to help your local farms, seek out opportunities to shop at your local farmer’s market or visit the farm directly to purchase their crops. Pay attention to any local calls for support, and look for fundraising opportunities that offer direct relief for farms in your community. Through a collective effort, farms and their communities can come up with solutions that will help them survive this historic challenge facing the farming industry.