Food insecurity and uncertainty surrounding the nation’s meat processing industry are leading to a new market for Connecticut farmers recognizing opportunity in the potential gaps in the food-supply chain.
Dozens of meatpacking plants closed down in recent weeks because of COVID-19 outbreaks. That’s meant farmers have nowhere to ship full-grown pigs to make room for piglets. Slaughterhouse closures have caused euthanasia of animals, resulting in a shortening supply of product to grocery stores. Although President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 28th that he says compels meat processors to remain open and invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure, the recent events already have turned customers to small farmers.
“I’ve seen grocery stores lacking products during this [pandemic] time. I never thought about my local meat farmers or was even aware that there were some locally. But I have noticed that quite a few are selling through Facebook advertising. Now knowing there are local farms offering meat and poultry, I’m more inclined to buy from them,” said Deep River resident Jessica Spearrin.
The recognition has not gone unnoticed.
“Farmers are farmers because we have pride in the fact that we are the ones feeding our community,” said Christine Peckham of Elm Farm in East Woodstock. “Often times that is the only thing that keeps us going. Knowing that we are putting out healthy, fresh, good for you food.”
Peckham and her family, who have farmed their land since 1885, rise at 4 a.m. every day to tend to the nearly 400 animals on their farm. They work into the evening hours doing chores and manning the onsite farm stand notwithstanding constant uncertainty that has been plaguing small farmers since before the pandemic emerged.
She added, “I had a customer come to me all the way from Norwich. She had 13 kids and she needed milk. The grocery store was limiting the amount of milk she could buy. I told her she could come and get whatever she needed from us. That made me feel great!”
Food purchased from a local farm goes from farm, to stand, to table. Food from a supermarket, starts its journey at an industrial farm, moves to processing, transport and distribution before supermarket and then to table. The latter involves extra steps, extra handling and extra time.
However, moving consumers to local farms — not just for goods purchased at once a week farmers markets during spring and summer months, but for full, weekly shopping — requires education and some consumer redirection. Many local farms throughout the state offer GMO-free, naturally raised, hormone-free pork, beef, chicken, bison, duck, turkey, even emu, rabbit and pheasant. A map of hours and availability is posted at CTGrownMap.com.
“It’s time for all of us to think way outside the box,” said Connecticut farmer Chris Bourne of Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme. “I have seen people making the circle of where they are getting their food a little tighter lately.”
Bourne has always been a direct-to-consumer farmer. A large part of his business served restaurants; when the pandemic hit and the restaurants needed less, he opened up his bulk sales to the public at restaurant prices.
“I’m lucky to have great customers who have always supported us and I am so happy to see some new faces at the farm stand in the past couple of weeks. I think that buying local is on the upswing, which is good news for local farmers. If I can retain just 25 percent of the new customers after this is all over, I will be very happy,” said Bourne, who has been using technology for several years to get the word out about his farm stand. “There is still an element of word of mouth out there, but I think all of us farmers need to use technology more, it’s the wave of the future and a way to stay connected.”
“I was asked by a customer recently, ‘How can we help the community, help dairy farmers?’ My answer, go to the farmers directly if you can. That ensures the money for us to pay the bills, to feed our herd, the fuel it takes to run the operation and electricity to run the milking parlor,” said Peckham, who, like all small farmers was unable to apply for the first round federal disaster injury loans and the Paycheck Protection Program because small agricultural operations where exempt.
However, the most recent package expanded past programs and made farmers eligible for the loans and the PPP. Farms must have fewer than 500 employees and less than $1 million in annual revenues to qualify.
“All I have to say is thank goodness,” said Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt.
“The fact that this program has now been opened up to the farmers is a big positive. However, it will be very telling how many farmers are actually approved for this funding,” added Hurlburt. “It only makes sense that farmers are eligible for this funding right now, it is supported by American taxpayers and farms are American businesses. That should be the takeaway.”
Hurlburt said that the state of Connecticut is seeing a tremendous demand for local food right now. “This is the silver lining to the COVID cloud,” he said.
However, Hurlburt said he does not foresee that there will be huge gaps in meat and poultry supply at grocery stores like what happened with paper towels and toilet paper because people are aware of their ability to continue to shop for groceries.