A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Building Better Systems: The Covid-19 Challenge Pushes Local Farms To Organize, Grow, and Work Together, Better

By the time the growing COVID-19 pandemic was countered with stay-in-place orders, social distancing became the new norm, and the economic pause resulted in disruptions to food supplies and reports of growing hunger in both urban and rural communities, local farmers already had most of their 2020 crops growing. CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares had been bought and planned for. Restaurant and farm market delivery schedules set and checked. 

“Our business disappeared overnight,” noted Field Goods Donna Williams, taking her first breather after a hectic six weeks following the state’s lockdown in mid-March. “It ended up being great, but horrific as we rebuilt our business plan and website in a matter of a week and started home deliveries, 80- to 90-hour weeks, and our revenue quadrupled.”

Field Goods is a Greene County-based business that delivers fresh produce from local farms to local residents and businesses started in 2011, and has grown to include over a thousand businesses and organizations that it works with, thousands of families, and several hundred farms.

Down in Ulster County, Matt Igoe of the Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA) said that “a skyrocketing of demand for local produce” was complicated by an unusually late spring this year, leaving farms behind in their plantings and early harvests, while also looking to create new means of maintaining revenues as expected.

“There’s been lots of innovation going on, although it can be costly for farms,” the RVGA executive director Igoe said. “We’re working to help ensure our farmers can afford this busy season. Cornell Cooperative Extension has been making equipment available for safe distancing practices on farms for produce pick-up…It’s a very precarious time.”

In the northern parts of our region, Soul Fire Farm—a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system,” raising and distribution of “life-giving food as a means to end food apartheid”—posted a missive to its many members in the Albany region and Berkshires in mid-May noting its decision to halt its on-farm programming “in the spirit of accountability to our highest values.”

“Our values call us to think about those most vulnerable in our communities and to make our decisions from that place,” it read. “Our communities are predominantly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, folks more impacted by the pandemic. Our communities are more likely to be caring for children and elders, navigating unemployment, targeted by law enforcement, and experiencing other hardships in this time. Our communities cannot afford to lose one more elder, one more parent, one more child. 

We are in this work of food and land sovereignty for the long haul. We will be here next year, in 10 years, in 20 years, and we see our collective work as more essential than ever. There will be time for us to gather together in person when it’s safe and right.”

In addition to expansion of its animals and plantings at their farm in the Taconic Hills, 45 minutes from Albany, Soul Fire has shifted its resources to a project they’re calling “Soul Fire in the City,” helping plant container gardens in backyards and vacant lots, and joining forces to distribute produce—as it comes in—to local farm markets and free food distribution networks.

The Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming, located in Phillipstown not far from Cold Spring since 2012, has similarly moved to utilize its role as a non-profit dedicated to “promote regenerative agriculture in service of our natural environment, local economies, and human health,” on a local and national basis, has similarly re-focused its attention for the times by getting more food to local pantries. 

“COVID is shining a spotlight on the challenge of getting local, fresh food to those in need—but may also be catalyzing the solutions,” wrote Glynwood president Kathleen Finlay in a piece, “Local Food for Every Table,” that’s been making the rounds in recent weeks. “Sitting in my living room-turned operational headquarters, zooming with my team during the first days of the pandemic, we made the decision to increase our farm’s food donations to our local food pantries, even though it meant we would lose some of our precious revenue at a time when funds are bound to be super tight. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. That simple gut-driven act of responding to the looming, unprecedented need in our community has led to the development of a program here at Glynwood that has the potential to have long-term impact well beyond the current crisis. Can we, on a regional scale, help get local, fresh, healthy food to those who need it most?”

Finlay noted the difficulties of a food system reliant on the largest corporations helping those in need, with little thought to local growers, or such a system’s reliance on packaged and processed food. She pointed out how the state’s Nourish NY program that will fund hunger relief organizations to purchase New York state fresh food was a step in the right direction, but one that unfortunately overlooked local farm networks in favor of bigger distribution systems.

Glynwood’s started a new initiative, called Local Food for Every Table, to secure the funds to contract farmers and get their food to regional pantries on a CSA model, with a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) component.

Field Good’s Williams, who expanded the CSA idea to embrace deliveries to centralized urban and suburban locations such as libraries, schools, and governmental buildings, is now doing all home deliveries, and has started augmenting its local produce with food purchases from farther-afield farms. They’ve also found themselves forced, under state COVID-19 directives, to push their produce’s packaging onto their participating farms. 

It’s all meant a lot of work for those who stayed on at Field Goods after unemployment benefits rose to a level higher than usual agricultural worker salaries, “like Lucy in the candy factory, on steroids,” as well as a sense of a new sustainable future for everyone in the local agriculture scene.

“I think we’ll all be getting a resurgence, which was needed after a pull away from what’s truly local on the retail front in recent years,” Williams said. 

She pointed out that many had grown complacent dealing more with chefs than home cooks or retail. 

Igoe, at RVGA, agreed, pointing out how demand seems to be moving back towards basics instead of more specialized produce.

As for the underlying issue of food security, that’s where the efforts at Soul Fire and Glynwood, as well as other innovative agricultural entities in the region such as Hawthorne Valley and Radix Ecological Sustainability Center in Albany, may be leading everyone into a future where the success of local farms will rely as much on where such farming happens as the distribution mechanics of the food system we had when faced with the recent challenges.

Only the future will tell. And our hunger for a better system…and food.