Coronavirus Comes for the Farmers’ Market

After decades of progress, the farm-to-table movement is facing a crisis.

Shepherd’s Way Farms are located on 44 acres an hour south of the Twin Cities. It’s a small plot in a region where corn and soybean farms can sprawl for thousands of acres. But Shepherd’s Way doesn’t require much space to raise the few dozen sheep that help produce the farm’s award-winning cheeses. What it needs, co-owner Steven Read told me beneath a shade tree recently, are consumers, farmers’ markets and — above all — restaurants that buy locally grown food.

Read isn’t alone. Across the U.S., small farmers who built businesses marketing locally grown produce are struggling to stay afloat during Covid-19. They aren’t the largest source of America’s food supply. But they’re undeniably important, both to the economy and to the development of healthy and robust food systems. So far, though, the federal government has largely overlooked them in favor of larger farms and agribusinesses.

For most of the past century, the story of American food was one of consolidation and commoditization. Small farms became big, corporate ones that supplied large-scale food companies with national distribution networks. But for members of the mid-century counterculture, at least, this corporatization was both alienating and unhealthy. In 1971, chef Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse, a Berkeley, California, restaurant that sourced its food from local farms. A movement soon followed.

These days, farm-to-table, as the movement came to be known, is premised on the idea that bringing producers and consumers closer together ensures fresher, more flavorful food while supporting local economies and reducing environmental harm. As of 2014, locally and regionally produced food was the fastest-growing sector of American agriculture, with more than $11 billion in sales and annual growth rates exceeding 10%. Farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, co-ops, and direct-to-consumer farm-fresh food deliveries have become key components of the movement. Their growth not only supports communities across rural America but powerfully influences the diets of millions.

Read founded Shepherd’s Way with his wife in 1994. They started with 40 sheep and no market. The large corporate buyers who dominate the American food business aren’t generally interested in small specialty farmers, so Shepherd’s Way helped form a co-op to which it could sell its milk, and — like other locally oriented farms — did the hard work of reaching out to potential customers. Before the pandemic, 59% of its sales went to distributors selling to restaurants and the farm was more profitable than ever.

Then Covid hit. In May, a nationwide survey of 500 small farmers selling direct to restaurants and markets found that on average they’d lost more than half their revenue during the first eight weeks of the pandemic compared to the same period last year. If sales remained similarly depressed into August, a third of those farms thought they could be out of business by the end of the year.

Historically, the U.S. government has favored large farms at the expense of small ones. Federal crop insurance, for instance, primarily covers traditional field crops, such as corn and wheat, that are grown on big plots. In November, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue stopped by the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, where he was asked about the decline of the state’s small farm population. In America, he answered, “the big get bigger and the small go out.”

Although the Department of Agriculture has started a $16 billion fund — called the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program — to provide direct aid to farmers hurt by the pandemic, its funding isn’t based on actual losses. Instead, it bases payments on production volume. It also uses a complex scheme that favors farmers of single crops over those who raise multiple ones (as small farmers tend to). Sure enough, specialty farms like Shepherd’s Way have so far received only 4.7% of the funding disbursed by the program.

Other aid programs haven’t helped much either. For example, the Payroll Protection Program won’t help small, owner-operated farms that showed a loss in 2019. Those small farms that do have employees tend to operate seasonally and often weren’t eligible for assistance during the limited window they were required to report in the application. Read estimates that total federal assistance amounted to 3.5% of “what our income would’ve been.” The good news is that he’s still in the black. But other small farmers aren’t so lucky, and as the fall looms, more will go bankrupt, taking with them the most vibrant sector of the U.S. farm economy.

So long as Covid shutters restaurants and keeps consumers away from markets, there aren’t any easy solutions to this problem. But as Congress mulls new ways to assist employers, specialty farms should be included in small-business support programs. In particular, any extension of PPP funding should specify that farmers can use their gross income — not profits or losses — on their applications. Congress could also consider using specialty farms and related businesses to help supply emergency food-assistance programs.

Such efforts will surely be costly. But so would allowing the multi-billion-dollar farm-to-table movement to simply wither in the fields.