Andrew Rodgers, farm manager at Clark Farm in Carlisle, is anticipating a big year ahead for small local agricultural operations like his. But in a sense, he’s been training for it his whole career.
“I think a lot about the role farms play in crisis situations,” he remarked recently. “That’s one of the reasons I got into agriculture. It was for environmental reasons, yes, but also from the realization that a centralized food system doesn’t make sense. When things break down and there’s a temporary disruption in our centralized agriculture system, how are we going to take care of ourselves?”
It’s the kind of analytical question that intrigued him back in grad school, but at the moment Rodgers is too busy raising organic crops and livestock to spend as much time as he once did thinking about the big picture. As more people avoid supermarkets amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, he anticipates a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in CSA shares at Clark Farm this summer.
CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, is a system whereby customers of local farms pay for a share of the harvest in advance of the growing season, then receive their produce on a regular basis as it becomes available.
Rodgers just started construction on one new greenhouse and completed another. He’s increasing the farm’s flock of laying hens from 300 to 500, doubling his pig population and expanding his sheep flock.
“We’re going to have huge demand,” he said. “This is going to stretch us a little bit.”
Rodgers at least has the advantage of years of experience running a farm. For Sofia Dobner-Pereira, this is her first season as farm manager at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset. She had been on the job less than two months when the pandemic changed everything.
Holly Hill Farm sells its harvest through a farm stand and two farmers markets, and the likelihood that social distancing will significantly curtail the farmers market season concerns her.
“Face-to-face interaction is a huge part of being a local farmer,” she said. “At a small farm like ours, you get to know your community members and your customers.”
Moreover, Holly Hill is a nonprofit with an educational component, and the temporary closing of all area schools means it won’t be able to run its popular educational programs throughout the South Shore.
On the plus side, however, “There’s been a massive increase in demand for locally grown produce” since supermarket shelves began to run bare, Dobner-Pereira said. Faced with the possibility of not being able to open the farmstand, Holly Hill has switched to a system where people can order produce online and then pick it up at the farm.
"Getting it up and running was a big-time investment, but I feel fortunate that we already have a customer base accustomed to buying from us,” Dobner-Pereira said.
Though Holly Hill Farm has not run a CSA in the past, she said it’s under consideration for this year.
But another way that the coronavirus pandemic affects local farms is simply in terms of personnel, Dobner-Pereira pointed out. “Local farms tend to be small businesses with a small staff,” she said. “If one of us gets sick, it will really harm our operations. To run the farm, we all need to stay healthy.”
For Rodgers, at Clark Farm, the issue of health among his staff was particularly immediate because three visiting farmers from Peru were scheduled to arrive in late March, part of the international training program through which Rodgers brings agricultural students from other countries every summer.
By mid-February, Rodgers was anticipating travel problems, so he moved up the visitors’ arrival date to ensure that they could get into the country and also complete a two-week quarantine period once they arrived. As of last week, they were all healthy and hard at work.
At Iron Ox Farm in Topsfield, Stacey Apple and Alex Cecchinelli are focused on building their CSA business.
“All the restaurants we sell produce to are closed right now because of the pandemic, and there’s the threat of the farmers markets where we sell shutting down or being infrequently patronized as well,” Apple said. “For the past several years, we’ve capped our CSA at 60 customers, but this year we’ll take as many CSA orders as we can get.”
Despite the potential loss of her restaurant clientele, Apple is optimistic about the upcoming season.
“People do need to eat, and in the past week we’ve gotten tons of calls about our CSA. Everybody seems really happy to have a local food source," she said. "People are scared that grocery stores could close or the shelves will be empty. Plus there’s the fear of contamination: it’s a risk both to go to the supermarket or to have groceries delivered. Buying food from a small farm carries the least risk. Fewer hands touch the food before you buy it; it’s more direct.”
“The critical role of local agriculture has never been more evident,” Rodgers said. “The current situation simply reinforces the need for strong localized agricultural systems. People have always known it’s good to support local farms. Now they’re seeing firsthand just how very important it is.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.