In California, farms have not been immune to COVID-19. A Farm Bureau Federation survey recently found that more than half of farms across the state have lost customers or sales due to pandemic. Small family farms are especially vulnerable.
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Poli Yerena is a farmer who grows berries on 17 acres around Watsonville. We meet at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco in April. The next week I call him up to ask how his small family farm has been doing since California issued the shelter in place order.
“We depend mostly from the farmers market. And at this point, everybody's suffering ... from the owner to the employee,” he says.
Poli specializes in strawberries, but also grows raspberries, blackberries, and boysenberries. He sells to a couple pie bakeries and jam shops, but he doesn’t have contracts with restaurants or grocery stores.
About 80 percent of his berries go to the market. Poli tells me that before the shelter in place, when restaurants were still open for dining, chefs would visit his farmers market stall and buy about half of his supply. Even though some of the markets are still open, because restaurants have been closed, chefs haven’t been buying.
To get a broader understanding, I call Evan Wiig at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, or CAFF, an organization that's been advocating for small and midsize farmers around California for over 40 years.
“There's a whole, mountain of obstacles that the farmers were facing prior to this happening, and when COVID hit, for a lot of farmers, it was just pretty devastating,” he says.
This has mainly been impacting farmers who have been selling to restaurants, wholesalers and cafeterias.
“For those farmers, they lost as much as a hundred percent of their sales outlets in less than a week. When all those businesses shut down, that was it for them.”
Although it has been really tough for some farmers, others adjusted quickly and are doing well. In general, farms that are doing well right now already had a CSA in place.
“CSA, that’s Community Supported Agriculture. At the beginning of the season, you buy into the farm and you get, usually it's a weekly delivery, whatever the farmer is producing at that time,” he says.
CSAs connect consumers directly to producers through membership programs.
“So farmers who were struggling to retain their members at the beginning of March, by the end of that same month, had waiting lists.”
Consumers like the idea of getting local produce directly from local farmers during the pandemic.
“So, for those farmers, it's been terrific,” Evan says.
Sandi McGinnis-Garcia co-owns McGinnis Ranch. When I met her at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, she told me that she has found CSAs to be a lifeline.
“It's really slow here at the market. We're shifting to other avenues to sell product. We're putting our product in some of the CSA boxes that are being delivered.”
This is something that Sandi has never done before.
“And then we have a lot of stuff in the field that needs to be harvested,” she says. “We're actually selling to the Edible School Yard. They usually sell to schools, but they shifted to, food banks. And it's just hard to make the shift so quickly and have an instant market and be prepared, but we're pretty flexible.”
But for other farmers who lost their markets, the challenge of redirecting food to new customers hasn't been easy.
“To lose all of your markets overnight, it's difficult,” says Josefina Lara Chavez, the farm-to-market specialist at CAFF. “And so they had all of this surplus of product that they were trying to pivot to another market.”
Josefina deals directly with the farmers.
“A lot of the farmers of color, for example, have been contacting us because they're often just in general, even before COVID-19, they are left out of the best marketing opportunities,” she says.
She informs me that farmers of color don’t always have the Bay Area connections to get in on CSAs here, and all that produce can be too expensive for people in farmworking communities to buy.
Josifna also says, farmers who are not native English speakers have an additional challenge communicating with customers.
“So it's really difficult to build relationships with these farmers, even though they might have the same capacity as an English speaking farmer, just solely on them not being able to speak English fluently is a disadvantage. I think people need to understand CSAs aren't for everyone.”
Evan Wigg says, another big challenge with moving into new markets is that most California farmers are older.
“The average age of farmers in California is well over 60 years old. So we've got this whole generation of farmers who are in their seventies and eighties, and to assume that they can simply pivot and start setting up online stores and promoting themselves through Facebook and Instagram and all these other online tools, that is a hard sell.”
This is the situation for Poli Yerena. He is 68 years old and has been working as a farmer since he was 15. He’s lived through historical moments in California farming. He remembers seeing Cesar Chavez speak and he made it through the loss of crops, labor, and infrastructure after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
“When we had the earthquake, we went through the same thing in 1989,” Poli says. “We, the farmers, we're used to this situation. We’re just trying to cope with whatever is happening right now.”
I first met Poli in April. I wanted to see how he is doing now, and I really wanted some strawberries, so I visit him at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
Poli’s smiling and joking. In the last couple months, he has started growing a variety of new crops, like tomatoes, green beans, and squash, which is all part of his new business model that his son is managing, called Farm to Fridge, where they deliver produce boxes to a drop-off site in San Francisco twice a week.
“So that's one of the reasons we're just adjusting whatever we're growing. So we can have more diversity in products in those CSA boxes.”
I ask him who is running the CSA part of his business.
“My son, he used to be a chef here in San Francisco and now he's helping us here, since the restaurants are already closed. Another son is helping us to build greenhouses.” Poli says now they can grow produce year-round.