two hands grabbing broccoli at G. Flores farm

The pandemic could actually strengthen the U.S. food system

The shock to U.S. food chains from the coronavirus has been a boon to small- and mid-sized farms and distributors. Could it be the start of a new way to get food?

Broccoli is harvested at G. Flores Produce, a 50-acre farm in Virginia. The Flores family grows a wide variety of crops, traditionally sold at local farmers markets. The troubles in the U.S. food system have been an opportunity for G. Flores and others to expand their businesses.

Omar Flores holds up what appears to be a fluorescent green baseball sprouting a forest of leafy trees. Then he pulls a knife from the braided sheath at his belt and expertly cuts the vegetable into flat rounds.

The newest customer to visit G. Flores Produce on the sandy eastern Virginia peninsula known as the Northern Neck, Tom McDougall, chews the raw, crunchy kohlrabi with an expression of reverence. The plant, an exotic-looking German cousin of the cauliflower and cabbage, would fetch a good price in the cities of Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

“Here's this thing that looks like an alien—and it turns out to grow particularly well in the mid-Atlantic?" McDougall says.

It’s also a bright green representative of the vast array of easily-grown, nutritious cultivars left out by an American food system built around just a few species—a symbol of the food system that was and might be again.

McDougall is at G. Flores to buy several thousand dollars of kohlrabi, kale, and golden beets for 4P Foods, a company he founded in 2014. 4P sells produce from operations like G. Flores to chefs, groceries, and consumers who want to buy food grown in the mid-Atlantic region but don’t have the time, contacts, or resources to find it themselves.

COVID-19 spread chaos across U.S. agricultural supply chains in the spring and is widely expected to do so again this year as the number of cases and deaths continues to rise. As that first wave of disruptions happened, 4P rapidly scaled up its direct-to-consumer business, even as the schools and restaurants that once made up half of its revenues shuttered. 4P's subscription revenues from January to June, year-over-year, have jumped almost 400 percent, with general revenues up 225 percent over the same timeframe. 4P now employs six times more people than before the pandemic.

But McDougall, like many in an emerging coalition of Mid-Atlantic farmers and wholesalers, is dreaming even bigger. COVID-19, he believes, could enable something he and fellow "food nerds" have long dreamed of: a thriving regional alliance of farmers, wholesalers, and customers.

If they succeed, McDougall argues, operations like 4P won't be the only beneficiaries. "Wouldn't it be amazing if we came out of the other end of [COVID-19] with a more equitable, distributed, and resilient food system?"

Shock to the system

The travails that COVID-19 brought to U.S. agriculture started in early March, when thousands of farms set up to supply the restaurant and food service industries had to rapidly pivot to selling to a populace now cooking most of its meals at home.

This, says John Newton, an economist with the Farm Bureau Federation, has led to a dramatic, even traumatic, change, as farms across the United States have seen their business models and painstakingly negotiated contracts evaporate overnight.

The U.S. food supply chain isn’t linear; it’s more like a matrix of crop growers, processors, and distributors, over half of which are geared toward providing raw materials to commercial kitchens, rather than homes. Entire plants are “fabricated just to make products for the restaurant business," Newton says, "whether it's French fries or large quantities of packaged bacon."

COVID-19 caught farmers and processors in the various food-service supply chains in a pincer attack. As it forced the closure of schools, offices, and restaurants, slashing badly needed sales, the virus also sickened thousands of workers throughout the few and massive U.S. processing factories—like the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—that serve the conventional food system.

This two-pronged crisis forced large commodity farms devoted to, say, the production of onions for restaurant onion rings or milk for school lunches, to dump produce and milk by the truckload, and slaughter pigs and chickens by the hundreds of thousands.

These coronavirus closures also hit smaller operations like G. Flores, many of which have survived the runaway consolidation of farms, processors, and markets over the last several decades by selling to farmer's markets and farm-to-table restaurants—niche venues where sales were, at best, extremely restricted in the pandemic.

But the Flores family was well positioned for change. After immigrating from outside Guadalajara in central Mexico, George Flores, Omar’s father, spent years as a picker, following the long harvest season in a great loop along the East Coast—from cucumbers in the Carolinas to apples in the Hudson Valley. That experience showed him diversity in both product and markets, his son says, which became key to the farm’s long-term economic survival—as was the ability to sell directly to customers.

On a blistering June day, we rattle through the Flores' vast fields, past rows of multifarious potatoes, melons, beans, squash, greens, and tomatoes, as the smell of Thai and lemon basil and dozens of other herbs wafts into the ATV.

Now 32, Omar Flores has grown up with a command of hedging and diversification that would humble an index trader: You can always plow back under crops you can't sell, he says, but when there's a rush on peppers, you'd best be sure you have some.

That strategy was why, when a friend from the Fredericksburg Farmers Market passed Flores's name on to McDougall, they were ready.

"That kale and kohlrabi didn't have a buyer yet," Omar Flores says, but his father had picked cultivars that wouldn't go "woody" if left unpicked for a long time. Like over a hundred other species on the Flores farm, they had sat waiting for chance—in this case, a pandemic—to bring them a customer.

Unprecedented successes

Regional agriculture advocates argue that the same diversity that protects a 50-acre farm like G. Flores can also fortify the larger food system.

In western Virginia, outside the Shenandoah Valley town of Edinburg, COVID-19 has brought Jordan and Laura Green their best year yet. Before the pandemic, they had shifted from farmers’ markets to online sales, shipping their grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken to customers, or selling it at their sprawling farm, which is about nine times the size of the Flores’s.

Like the Flores family—and unlike a conventional meat farm in the Smithfield or Tyson supply chain—the Greens follow a strategy of diversification to smooth out the bumps in the market. They think cultivating a wide array of direct customers, able to buy through a wide variety of different means—at their farm stand or online—means more reliable income than if they just sold wholesale to a few restaurants. "If you put 50 percent of your business in any one thing and it changes," Jordan Green says, "you're done."

So though the pandemic cost them all of their restaurant customers—about 5 percent of their operation—direct-to-consumer sales went up by a factor of 10. “We've been able to grow the business more in three months than what we projected in five years," he says.

Though it is far too soon for systematic data, reports from farmers, CSA alliances, regional food researchers, and wholesalers across the country suggest a boom is under way for direct-to-consumer operations, as long as they're close enough to cities to take advantage of dense urban markets, says Nelson of the Farm Bureau Federation. A sweeping study on the impacts of COVID on agricultural markets by a task force of land grant universities like the University of Georgia and Ohio State University, meanwhile, has concluded chiefly that more study is needed.

Still, the anecdotal surge in sales holds for both relatively large operations like the Greens', and also for small ones like all-women produce farm Owl’s Nest—on five acres just outside of Washington D.C. That farm sold out its subscription boxes a month earlier than usual. And by a month into the pandemic, owner Liz Whitehurst says she had 150 people on a waiting list for 100 slots.

A retail spike like this is "unheard of," says Kathleen Finlay, the president of Glynwood, a teaching farm and organizing hub in the Hudson Valley, where direct-to-retail farms have seen "unprecedented" demand, with CSA shares selling out within weeks of sales opening.

For some direct-to-retail farms, the boom has meant a chance—even a necessity—of sharing the wealth. Jordan and Laura Green saw "four months of inventory evaporate in six weeks." To fill orders, the Greens became wholesalers themselves. They now buy from farms in Indiana and New Jersey that meet their brand's ethical and ecological standards, and that have their own processing operations—saving the Greens the effort of buying hundreds of new calves—but who had lost their own restaurant and institutional customers in the lockdown.

To meet the COVID-19 surge, Jordan Green says, "deals that usually would have taken months happened in a week."

That nimbleness, says Finlay, is characteristic of the sustainable agriculture movement. "It's way less efficient, but way more decentralized, which makes it more agile than these very ingrained [conventional] networks with just a few nodes.”

Local- and regional-food proponents like Finlay and McDougall believe that their system is more resilient and adaptable. However, that’s still unproven, says Gidon Eshel, a professor of environmental physics at Bard College and Harvard who is preparing a paper on resilience in regional food.

It is intuitive, Eshel says, "that the predominance of just a few players and regions is dangerous, because it's susceptible to various perturbations," and that distributing production across many regions should lead to more resilience—and better public health.

Just last year, disastrous flooding across the upper Midwest gutted one of the world’s principal corn-and soy baskets; only the glut of product left unsold because of the trade war with China staved off price spikes. And when it comes to food contamination, single sources of distribution can spread a single mistake over a huge geographic area; in 2012, for example, a listeria outbreak at a Colorado packing farm led to 33 deaths across 28 states.

Still, Eshel says, with Earth’s population headed toward 10 billion, providing a healthy and nutritious diet for all is one that will be hard to solve with only local and regional agriculture. “How do we achieve the necessary volume of production, with the maximum efficiency possible,” Eshel says, “while causing the least amount of damage? That is strongly pushing us toward favoring large-scale commercial agriculture.”

Pushing past boundaries

Those big commercial farms serve a valid need, says Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant and visiting scholar at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University. The Northeast, for example, has been a net food importer for a century, and even vastly expanded regional agriculture will likely not be enough for it to feed itself.

But Clancy thinks that America’s mid-sized farms are essential to long-term food-security because of their flexibility. Those farms, however, are too big to effectively sell to farmer’s markets or individuals, yet too small to compete with the biggest commodity operations.

Operating regionally, they deal with a bewildering array of government rules, and a lack of organizations, governmental or otherwise, to encourage them. In the D.C. “foodshed,” for example, there is no single entity that farmers and consumers can turn to that addresses the region’s shared needs.

“We need policy that crosses state boundaries, and most food systems in the U.S. have not been able to go there yet,” Clancy says. For example, under federal law, the Greens would have to hire a USDA inspector if they processed any more chickens than the 20,000 they do currently, as well as to sell in D.C., even though it is far closer than most of the rest of Virginia.

This is ultimately what McDougall and his allies are trying to solve: the mission, ultimately, that brought him to the Flores farm on that hot June day.

In the weeks after the lockdowns, when it became clear that businesses like 4P Foods were thriving, McDougall and a group of Mid-Atlantic food activists and entrepreneurs founded MAFRAC, the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition. The group matches producers like the Greens or Flores’ with buyers to create community feeding networks. So far, MAFRAC has awarded grants of up to $15,000 to dozens of organizations, which has helped keep money in farmers' pockets, taken strain off food banks, and gotten fresh food into the hands of people who need it.

But that short-term crisis response, McDougall believes, has a long-term payoff: a new matrix of business and personal relationships around which regional agriculture can grow and ultimately advocate for its own interests—a network not of marginal do-gooders but of serious businesses. Every transaction pulsing through these new connections helps create a world in which it is easier for customers to eat food grown in their region.

“Our hope is that after the pandemic, people won't forget what is happening right now—and will stay involved to change the system," McDougall says.

Editor's note: 4P's year-over-year subscription and general revenue increases were misstated. 4P's subscription revenues from January to June have jumped nearly 400 percent, with general revenues up 225 percent over the same timeframe.

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