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How COVID-19 has Impacted Organic Farmers in the U.S.

(Farmers markets, with the ability to socialize and touch the produce, are a thing of the past. Photo courtesy of Hurricane Flats -- at the Norwich Farmers Market in Vermont.)

With headlines of industrial meat processors shutting down, the dumping of millions of gallons of milk, and vegetables being plowed over, there is reason for concern. Most notably, how food is getting to the end-consumer has dramatically changed, if it is getting to them at all. Farmers markets — the lifeblood of local food communities — may never be the same, and the disruption is jarring, from both an operational and social perspective.

However, amidst the dislocation, there is reason for hope. Concern about the welfare of our fellow citizens has grown tremendously, and many organic farmers are doing their part, such as partnering with food banks to help alleviate hunger.

In today’s letter, I spoke with a handful of organic farmers across the country, wanting to get a sense of how this pandemic is affecting them. The experience of the farmers below is by no means representative of all organic farmers. It is merely a small subset. Here is an edited version of my conversations with them.

Mark McAfee
Organic Pastures – raw milk, butter, cheese, kefir, cream
Fresno, CA

There is a massive oversupply of milk, and with restaurants and schools closed, the processing industry is so clogged up that it has not been able to adapt quickly to a changing market. There aren’t enough trucks or truck drivers. Stores need deliveries twice a week, not once a week.

Making matters even more complicated is that fluid milk over the past 15 years has been shrinking, and bottling plants have been shut down. The infrastructure is simply not there to quickly meet this unexpected surge in demand for milk.

Fortunately, we are a fully integrated company, and we control every part of the process, including owning our own trucks.

We were thriving when COVID-19 hit, and since then, our sales are up 40%. This has been an unbelievably good time for us. Furthermore, fuel prices have dropped $1 per gallon, and no one is on the road driving. Our efficiency has improved dramatically, and we have plenty of new customers because other people couldn’t deliver product.

Being local really matters and so does having control over every part of the process. We have many neighbors that are near bankruptcy.

Geo Honigford
Hurricane Flats – fruits, vegetables
South Royalton, VT

Farmers markets are 40% of my business, and the governor’s announcement last Friday that farmers markets must close is a big blow. We have a farmstand and it will do better than it has in the past, but it will not make up the shortfall.

Many organic farmers in the state are lobbying to get the governor to change his stance, and we are working with NOFA-VT to come up with safety measures. I think the governor is overreacting based on the advice he is getting and doesn’t have a true understanding of the situation. They just put out guidelines for food stores to follow, but people are stocking shelves without face masks or gloves. No one is really watching them. 

The farmers markets start in 2-3 weeks, so I am not affected by this decision just yet, but if the situation doesn’t change by then, I will be hit immediately.

Dave Bishop
PrairiErth Farm – produce, herbs, grains, meat
Atlanta, IL

Overall, our business has increased significantly, but it required us to make rapid shifts.

30% of our business was to restaurants, but that dried up immediately. 60% of sales were to Chicago grocery stores, and now we are receiving orders of “send us whatever you have” or “we’ll take pallets of that.” This panic ordering from a business is something I had never seen before. The remaining 10% was CSA (community-supported agriculture) or home delivery. CSA orders doubled overnight, and home delivery has really taken off.

What we are seeing is that to have diversity in how you are marketing your products is just as important as having diversity in what you are producing. We have one friend who sold 100% of his goat cheese production into the Chicago restaurant system, and that is completely gone.

We are expanding as rapidly as we can and hiring new help, but there are problems with the H2A visas. A few of our people from last year could not get through this year.

While sales are growing, it is also a scary and stressful time — the idea of expanding too fast and failing. Or, if people are buying more food than they can use, are my sales going to stop in the future when I have a lot of perishable food coming online?

The big learning from all of this is that consumers need to support local food systems. We are seeing first hand the flaws in the industrial food system, and the best way to address this is to buy local and form relationships with local food producers. If you do not have a relationship with a local farm, there is no better time to start one

Ken Kimes
New Natives – microgreens
Aptos, CA

COVID-19 has affected us in a very negative way, with our income down 40-50%. Our big wholesaler, which was selling directly to restaurants, went out of business. We are in the Santa Cruz area, and the big tech companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, have huge commissaries and tremendous food needs. But that has all closed up, uncertain if it will return.

We are doing our best to keep our people employed and have applied for the federal paycheck protection program. However, our bank can’t tell us much about how it is coming along.

At the farmers markets, which is a very big part of our business — 8 markets per week — we now have to have two people working there, one person to handle the cash and one person to give the microgreens to customers. This has increased our costs. But the whole feeling of the farmers markets has changed. We have to keep people moving, and they are a lot less fun for us. Farmers markets are a social activity, as much as a way to generate sales.

The message we need to get across to consumers is that COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness. There is no known association of food or food packaging with COVID-19, but this is being conflated with the big romaine recalls. The shelter-in-place order has tended to push consumers into buying commodities (canned goods) instead of fresh.

Crystal Stewart-Courtens, Jean-Paul Courtens 
Philia Farm – diversified vegetables
Johnstown, NY

Both of us are thinking less about our own ventures and more about our industry as a whole.

It is uncertain if people will want to go to farmers markets, and many growers who worked directly with restaurants are unsure if these businesses will be around in the future. CSAs are all over the place. Some are doing very well, while others are struggling. People in NYC want access to healthy food, but the logistics are staggering.

There is a lot of desperation and real food insecurity, but so many people want to do something good and are asking, “How can I help?  How can I contribute positively?”  

This crisis is highlighting the need for humans to come together and to take care of each other. We are seeing cooperation where we maybe haven’t seen it before. I hope that we can continue this spirit as we look at equally large issues, such as climate change, and how we will move forward as a human race. This dire situation goes well beyond organic for us.

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

New Organic Products

New Organic Products

Sunflower Protein Cacao Crisps from SunflowerFamily USA

Chocolate for breakfast? SunflowerFamily USA thinks so and has unveiled Organic Sunflower Protein Cacao Crisps. Made from organic sunflower seeds and free from all major allergens, each serving provides 13g of plant protein and 5g of fiber. Vegan, gluten-free, soy-free.

Well Carved™ Organic Grass-Fed Beef Burger from Applegate

As part of its new Well Carved™ product line that pairs organic meat with whole organic vegetables, legumes and grains, Applegate has come out with an organic, 100% grass-fed beef burger, which contains cauliflower, spinach, lentils, and butternut squash. 1/3 cup of vegetables per serving.

Sea Salt & Avocado Oil Roasted Seaweed from gimME

With avocado oil continuing to surge in popularity, gimME has introduced a sea salt and avocado oil roasted seaweed snack. It is now available in 9g single packs and 4.5g 6-packs in retail stores nationwide and also online.
This Week's News Items

Weekly News Summaries

First Course

Uncle Matt's Gets Reacquired for $7.25M

By Brad Avery

Founder Matt McLean, his wife and several beverage industry partners have purchased Uncle Matt's back from Dean Foods.

Food Navigator

Report: Extreme Buying Slows but Remains 23% Higher than Pre-COVID-19 Levels

By Mary Ellen Shoup

In a report from NCSolutions, consumers are entering a new stage of shopping behavior characterized by higher sales of non-essential food items such as cookies, chocolate and ice cream.

Second Course
Asheville Citizen-Times

A Comeback for Earth Fare

By John Boyle and Mackensy Lunsford

A group of North Carolina investors, including Earth Fare's founder, plan to revive a handful of the bankrupt chain's stores.

The Washington Post

U.N. Warns about Possible Disruptions to the Global Food Supply

By Robyn Dixon, David L. Stern and Almaz Kumenov

As borders harden during the pandemic, some countries look to hold on to their own food.

Third Course

Walmart Grocery App sees Record Downloads, Surpasses Amazon by 20%

By Sarah Perez

The Walmart Grocery app grabbed the No. 1 ranking position across all shopping apps in the U.S. on April 5th.

Food Navigator

SPINS: Avocado Oil Gains Traction While Coconut Oil Continues its Slide

By Elaine Watson

Over the past year, sales of avocado oil grew by an eye-popping 24%.

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* Fully circular, self-sufficient communities in Sweden — that have their own organic food production, locally produced and stored energy, comprehensive recycling and climate positive buildings — will begin construction later this year.

* Center for Food Safety has come out with COVID: Food Safety FAQs.

* This Friday, April 17th at 1pm EST, The Organic Center will be hosting a webinar — Building Soil Health in Organic Systems.

* Curated by organic clothing and textile pioneer Marci Zaroff, her ECOfashion Corp and its new sustainable lifestyle brand YES AND will host a Digital Earth Day Sustainability Summit on April 22nd at 5:30pm EST.

* On April 23rd at noon EST, the Richman Law Group and the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute will be hosting the inaugural virtual Food Systems Summit, which will explore creative law and policy strategies to fight fraud in the food industry and advance public health, animal welfare, environmental protection and economic justice.

* Stephanie Seneff, PhD and a senior research scientist at MIT, is connecting the dots between glyphosate and COVID-19.

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