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To help farmers impacted by market closures due to COVID-19, we’re making the audio recording of the MOSES Conference workshop “Attract Local Customers Online” available FREE. Click here to go to the MOSES online store to download the free MP3 file.

 

Farmer-nurse shares plan to manage impact of coronavirus on market farms

By Kristen Muehlhauser, RN, BSN, & Farmer

Editor’s note: In addition to running a CSA market farm, Kristen works as a registered nurse with older adults and cardiac patients at a regional teaching hospital and trauma center. She has been following the coronavirus outbreak closely since her patients are in the demographic of highest mortality risk. She submitted this article to help other farmers prepare for the impact of the virus on small farms.

 

One of the greatest joys of farming is that we produce something people truly need every single day. Everyone needs to eat! Small farms and small businesses may experience extreme disruption this season due to closings and cancellations to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Here are four steps you can take now to build resilience on your farm during what may prove to be a tough year.

Step 1: Educate yourself.

Who is most at risk from COVID-19?
People ages 70 and older and anyone with asthma, diabetes, COPD, smoking history, high blood pressure, heart disease. In these demographics, anyone who is infected with coronavirus has a higher risk of mortality. One in seven infected people ages 80+ will die. One in 13 infected people ages 70+ will die. One in 10 infected people with heart disease will die. (Source: Chinese CDC article published in Journal of American Medicine JAMA on Feb 24, 2020.

Practice social distancing.
The Centers for Disease (CDC) controls expects 40-70% of the U.S. population to be infected with the coronavirus, and 2.4 million to 21 million people to require hospitalization. There are only 925,000 staffed hospital beds in the country, including less than 90,000 ICU beds.

If we all continue with regular life and go out shopping, working, and learning, the virus will spread too quickly and we run out of ICU beds and ventilators quickly. If we all stay home, the virus will spread more slowly and we might have the resources to save more lives. (Source: U.S. CDC’s epidemiology models as reported by the NYTimes Reporting on CDC Death Estimates)

The outbreak could be long-term. The CDC website is officially recommending organizers cancel or postpone all in-person mass gatherings of 50 people or more for 8 weeks (through May 9). Beyond that, our government agencies have not committed to a timeline.

As a healthcare provider, I can say history tells us the outbreak will end when 1) a vaccine becomes widely available, or 2) a majority of the population has been infected and herd immunity has developed. More than 20 companies are racing to create a safe vaccine, but no one knows how quickly it will be available. (Various new sources estimate 12 months.) No one can predict how long it will take for the U.S. population to develop herd immunity because it depends on people’s habits. If we keep mixing in society, the virus will spread quickly (and more people will die due to full hospitals). If people actually stay home, it will take longer for the outbreak to end.

Step 2: Assess farm resources.
Make a list of your farm resources. Which ones are secure, and which resources could come up short due to the outbreak and its disruption of daily life? Is there any action you can take now to be prepared? Here’s a list to get you started.

Labor
Do you have enough people, family, friends, or young/low-risk volunteers that the farm could run critical planting and harvesting operations even if you, your spouse, or your staff is out for two weeks sick or in quarantine? Do you and your farm workers have health insurance or Medicaid?

First Aid Kit
If/when your local health system is swamped by coronavirus critical patients, normal healthcare services may not be available. This means you want to be extra careful on your farm this season. If you fall off the barn roof, break your arm, get stung by bees, etc., normal ambulance, urgent care, and emergency care may be overwhelmed and unable to help depending on the timing of peak COVID-19 outbreak in your area.
• Restock your farm first-aid kit to include:
• Bandaids, bandages, tape (cuts, scrapes)
• Rubbing alcohol, antibiotic ointment, or soap and clean water (cleansing wounds)
• Tylenol & ibuprofen (pain, fever)
• Benadryl (stings and allergic reactions)

Hand Soap, Sanitizers, and Cleansers
If you are distributing your food directly to consumers this season, you may need more sanitizing wipes, cleansers, rags, etc., to regularly clean (wipe off germs to reduce the number) and sanitize (chemically kill the germs) people will touch—doorknobs, light switches, bathrooms, shelves, countertops, etc.
If you distribute your food wholesale or through CSA boxes, you may need a larger supply of distribution boxes. You may need to clean and sanitizes boxes more frequently.
The CDC’s most up-to-date recommendations on how to clean (we are still learning about the virus) can be found here: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/cleaning-disinfection.html.

Annual supplies
Do you have enough of the supplies critical to your operation to last through this year if supply chains are disrupted?
Here’s the list from my vegetable & flower operation: seeds, potting mix, greenhouse supplies, irrigation, hoophouse plastic, fencing, ground cover, harvest crates, wash tubs, buckets, packaging, compost, fertilizers, gloves, boots, rain gear, sun protection.

Financial Resources
Do you have a cash flow projection? I like the free template at www.thinkbusiness.ie/articles/cash-flow-plan-farming. You can personalize the categories to your farm.
If your farm revenue is reduced due to closed markets, when will you run out of money to operate/make payroll? What resources are available in your community to bridge the revenue gap until markets return to “normal?” Options to consider include taking a temporary off-farm job, grants, bank loans, Kiva loans, crowdfunding, and possible government aid coming out of COVID-19 emergency legislation.
Do you have personal savings in the event that your farm is not profitable this year? If not, this is a good opportunity to create stronger community connections. Let your customers know that you need their support this year and that you are creating new, safe ways to get them your farm’s products.

Step 3: Assess market streams.
Everyone eats every day. Your local community still needs food, and some people will feel better knowing their food is coming from their trusted, local farmer.

Farmer’s markets: Public markets may be closed this spring, summer, and even fall. On our farm, this represents 40% of our projected annual income, so we’ll need to create alternate streams for the produce/flowers we usually sell there.

Flower cooperative: Flower sales may decline due to cancelling of events/weddings, and/or the economic downturn.

Wholesale: Wholesale to restaurants may decline if restaurants are not open to the public. Wholesale to retail stores may increase as people are currently stocking up for an uncertain future.

Farm Stands & CSA Distributions: Good public health practices will be key for farm stands. Can pick-up times be staggered? Can surfaces be sanitized more frequently? Can you create an online ordering system and allow customers to customize their orders for curbside pickup or delivery? Can you collaborate with other area farms and create a temporary food hub to gather products from many farms, box them for pickup, and allow for online ordering?

Education (camps, workshops, field trips): Cancelled for foreseeable future. Could you sell workshop/camp gift cards to your loyal customer base now as a way to ease cash flow now? (But you’ll have to deliver that product in the future.)

Step 4: Modify your business plan.

Create alternative markets that provide for social distancing.
Online ordering systems may be key to having your customers minimize the time they spend standing around in a crowd to pick up their items. Here are some online ordering systems I learned about at the latest MOSES Conference. (I have no affiliation with any of these companies, and no experience using them, but list them here as resources.)
Barn2Door
CSAware
Harvie
Local Food Marketplace

Communicate with your customers.
This is the time to let them know that you will still be growing their food this year, but that the method of delivery will change. Use your email list and social media channels. Let them know you want them to count on you to grow their food.

Collaborate with other local farms (eggs, dairy, bread, veggies, fruit, microgreens, flowers) and aggregate your products to get them out in box shares for pickup or delivery. This is an opportunity to increase your own customer base as you send marketing emails to loyal customers of all the farms involved.

Kristen Muehlhauser raises vegetables, flowers, and children at Raindance Organic Farm in Michigan. She also works off-farm as a nurse.

Farmers Market Guidelines
To ensure the wellbeing of farmers and their customers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Farmers Market Coalition has issued these guidelines for market managers:
• Establish relationships with key community partners, such as local health departments, and collaborate with them on broader planning efforts.
• Promote the practice of everyday preventive actions.
• Provide prevention supplies at your events. Plan to have extra supplies on hand for event staff and participants, including sinks with soap, hand sanitizers, tissues.
• Discourage people who are sick from attending events.
• Identify actions to take if markets need to be postponed or canceled.
See more at farmersmarketcoalition.org/farmers-markets-covid19.

From the March | April 2020 Issue

 

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