Farmers stay on the job in crisis — but it's not easy
MONKTON — Like farmers everywhere right now, Silas Doyle-Burr of Last Resort Farm in Monkton is struggling with a lot of uncertainty as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds.
“We’re really just getting started in terms of growing,” he told the Independent Wednesday morning. “We have greens in our greenhouses and we’re doing micro-greens. We have value-added products and still have some roots in storage.”
The Burlington Farmers Market closed its March and April events, which has left Last Resort with fewer options for selling its produce. And yet, Doyle-Burr explained, “We’ve seen a significant increase in demand in the past four to five days that’s making me think that we’re going to run out of supply pretty soon.”
Last Resort grows 27 different crops on approximately 100 tilled acres, according to a well-planned schedule. They could switch to crops with a shorter turnaround with the hope of meeting increased demand, but things are still going to take a while to grow.
“The concern going forward is: What is the demand going to be? Is this increase in demand sustainable? How should we — or should we — alter our crop plan?”
Labor issues have also grown complicated on the farm.
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 — on Wednesday the first case in Addison County was confirmed — prompted the departure of one employee.
Another employee, who comes from Jamaica through an H-2A agricultural visa program, was scheduled to arrive at Last Resort Farm on April 20, but Doyle-Burr doesn’t know if he’ll make it.
According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker Wednesday morning, there were 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Jamaica.
The same day, U.S. Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall told Politico that “foreign workers with previous work experience in the U.S. who do not require in-person interviews will be allowed to return under the H-2A program.”
But new travel restrictions issued by the Trump administration mean that some American farmers won’t have access to all of the skilled labor needed at a critical time in the planting season, Duvall added.
“If he doesn’t come, it would be a significant loss because the hours he works are on par with what I do,” Doyle-Burr said. “It would be a major loss. Last year he worked the equivalent of two and a half people.”
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has created a webpage for coronavirus-related information for farmers: tinyurl.com/Covid-farmers.
The page links to updates from the Vermont Department of Health and provides guidance for food safety issues and for food and lodging businesses.
Local and state farmers are also sharing information among themselves.
Doyle-Burr said he’s been keeping up with the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association listserv, “which covers all things ag,” and the Vermont Young Farmers Coalition listserv, where members have proposed holding brainstorming sessions on how to address challenges posed by COVID-19.
This week the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) put out a call for help for the state’s dairy farmers.
“We have heard a growing concern from dairy farmers about what will happen if they get sick with COVID-19 and cannot work,” NOFA-VT organizers wrote on Facebook and elsewhere. “The average age of dairy farmers is almost 60 in Vermont, putting these crucial food providers at increased risk of the disease. Many dairy operations are run by one or two farmers, often in the same family.”
NOFA-VT called on Vermonters to “show up and stand by our state’s farmers,” who are already economically stressed.
“We are proactively seeking to build a list of people skilled enough to lead milkings on farms for the duration of the sickness,” they explained. “NOFA-VT will make funds available through our Farmer Emergency Fund to pay the relief workers.”
Experienced milkers who can help may contact Bill Cavanaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate to the emergency fund, visit nofavt.org/donate.
Migrant Justice is working to keep migrant farm workers up to date on coronavirus issues.
“There are volunteers all over the state supporting food access and support,” Migrant Justice officials wrote on their Facebook page. Migrant workers with an emergency can call (802) 881-7229. Those in less urgent need can fill out an online form by visiting tinyurl.com/migrant-assistance.
Last week, Chris Callahan, an Extension Associate Professor of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Vermont, urged members of the Fruit and Vegetable Growers listserv to “plan for change.”
“Many produce farms are lean operations run by one or two managers and a minimal crew,” Callahan wrote. “Do you have a plan for if you become severely ill? How do things change if half your workforce is out sick? More business and labor planning guidance is available at the Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development site.”
Callahan urged growers to communicate with their customers:
“Consider reaching out to your customers and recommend they stay home if they are ill. Have you informed your customers about any changes in your hours or policies?”
And to consider alternative delivery methods:
“Some markets are taking this opportunity to launch pre-ordering and electronic payment options to enable social distancing at market. Some markets are moving to a drive-through pickup option.”
Callahan also advised growers to talk up the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.
“We’re fortunate to have so many growers who do a great job with storage crops and winter production,” he wrote. “This means our community has access to fresh fruits and vegetables that are important to their immune systems at this time of need... Fun Fact: Pound for pound, that cabbage stored in your cooler has as nearly as much vitamin C as oranges.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL
“We sugar, so for me it’s pretty much business as usual,” Doyle-Burr said. “This is usually a time when sales stagnate a little bit. The (Burlington) Farmers Market is canceled. We do just one wholesale delivery a week.”
Doyle-Burr is waiting to see if delivery protocols change. In the meantime, “we’re making sure we wash our hands. We’re wearing gloves.”
It’s farming. Work must continue.
“The rest of the week is just going to be focused on infrastructure development, maintenance, sugaring and trying to get some more greens in the ground, so that if this demand does continue, we’ll be prepared to feed and nourish the community.”
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.