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Pandemic is presenting challenges for Richmond area farmers but they are adjusting
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Pandemic is presenting challenges for Richmond area farmers but they are adjusting

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Drive thru at South of the James Farmers Market in Forest Hill Park.

Busy farmers markets, normally a staple in the Richmond region during the spring and summer months, have been put on hold after Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people as a way to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting challenges for local farmers and farmers market operators. But farmers and others in Virginia’s agriculture community say they are adapting.

At Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield County, for instance, customers now place orders online and use a drive-thru pickup to get their produce or breads.

The reception to the changes has been positive so far, said Janet Aardema, co-owner of Broadfork Farm. But she’s worried the added steps might prove to be too inconvenient for customers in the long term.

“Farmers markets were already less convenient than just going to the closest grocery store. Is this better than that, and will they be comfortable navigating the online ordering? I just don’t know yet,” Aardema said.

The extra time needed to wash and package orders instead of bringing the goods to a market booth also will put a strain on her small group of employees, Aardema said.

To cut down on prep time, Aardema said the farm may have to adjust its crop plan to focus on vegetables that are easy to harvest and clean, another decision she is unsure how customers will respond to.

She said she hopes consumers will recognize the circumstances call for more flexibility and she’s grateful for the positive response so far.

Other farmers market organizers also have made the shift online.

At Woodside Farms, which is part of the farm-centered Chickahominy Falls residential community in Hanover County for adults 55 and older, the farmstand had customers preordering sets of produce, meats or a bundle package when it opened for the first time on March 28.

The stand sold out within an hour, said Kirsten Nease, director of marketing for Cornerstone Homes, the builder and developer of the Chickahominy Falls project.

Having a simple selection made it easier for them to meet the demand, she said.

“We already has some software we used for other programming within the company and were able to modify it to allow us to presell and we kept it simple with just three options,” Nease said.

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Other farming operations have had to learn to pivot their businesses amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Clay Trainum, owner of Autumn Olive Farms in Waynesboro, said the demand for his high-end pork disappeared practically overnight.

“We lost 90% of our restaurant sales in 36 hours. The rest is also gone. That represents 75% of our business. In the two weeks since, we are now seeing that perhaps many restaurant establishments are not going to be coming back,” Trainum said in an email.

Autumn Olive Farms, he said, has adapted to new ways of doing business including putting more resources toward butcher sales and selling directly to consumers by processing, cutting and packaging things themselves.

“If we can pull off the monumental feat of reinvention on the fly, then we may survive. We have experience, determination, great product and team so I think we will be successful. It will be a long hard road, but we are all in this together,” Trainum said.

Cavalier Produce also has been forced to switched its business model. The Louisa County-based company, which supplies produce mostly to restaurants, colleges and retirement homes, is now selling directly to consumers after many of its core customers have closed or curtailed operations.

The company is allowing consumers to order fruits, vegetables, cheeses and eggs and have those items dropped off at three locations on Wednesdays and Friday in the Richmond area.

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Travel restrictions also had created uncertainty for many farmers in the state who rely on legions of immigrant farmworkers through a seasonal guest-worker program, officially known as the H-2A program, to fill gaps in their labor supply.

These temporary workers are allowed to come to the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work each year to fill the gap left by a shrinking number of domestic workers willing to take the labor-intensive work. The Virginia Employment Commission estimated the state brought in more than 4,000 temporary workers in 2017, the latest figures available.

On March 26, the U.S. State Department increased its efforts to process these visa holders to ensure they reach farms in time for the crucial early stages of this year’s growing season, said Ben Rowe, the national affairs coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau.

U.S. consular officials now can waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning applicants to expedite the process less than two weeks after a suspension of all visa services was announced, Rowe said.

That action is a huge relief for farmers across the country, he said, because now the vast majority of qualified applicants will be allowed entry.

“The reality is these are the people who do most of the agricultural work in the country,” said Amy Hicks, co-owner of Amy’s Garden, which operates an organic farm in Charles City County and is a leading supplier to local farmers markets.

The seasonal immigrant farmworkers are the primary workforce on her farm, and she was thrilled to get everyone she needed for the year.

With workers on hand, Hicks said the farm will continue on its normal schedule. Even if demand drops in the next few months, she said leftover crops can still be donated to food banks and other distributors.

Hicks also is trying to shift business online by setting up a website for customer orders and creating drop spots where customers can come and pick up orders to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

In the meantime, she said everyone is paying close attention to sanitation regulations and focusing on making the process of harvest-to-packaging as safe as possible.

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The future for many crops is still a cause for concern as agricultural markets have been negatively hit by COVID-19 along with the rest of the economy, said Olga Isengildina Massa, a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Staples including corn, soybeans and wheat have taken hits since the beginning of the year, and uncertainty remains on how long quarantines could last and what impact those actions will have on supply chains.

“These negative price movements in commodity markets are putting downward pressure on potential profitability of agricultural producers and their ability to obtain credit to finance their operations,” Massa said in an email.

Jeff Hula, the production and shipping manager of the seed supplier Renwood Farms Inc. in Charles City, said it has been business as usual aside from supply chain disruptions and commodity pricing fluctuations.

It is taking longer to get parts for equipment repairs, he said.

For instance, the dust masks he uses, which are the same health care personnel are currently using for protective equipment, are impossible to come by.

But the crisis has created one unfortunate benefit — a large pool of unemployed workers.

“I couldn’t find workers a month ago, and now I have plenty of people asking to help out,” Hula said.

Shalom Farms in Midlothian has up to 6,000 volunteers who can help with planting and harvesting in a typical year.

But Dominic Barrett, executive director of the nonprofit regional food access program, said the operation can’t take the risk of using volunteers right now.

The farm is lucky to not have a high volume to harvest in winter months, and its small full-time staff has been able to keep up with demand so far.

However, he said plans for putting up to 35,000 plants in the ground in the next four weeks could be tricky if he doesn’t have access to labor to harvest them this summer.

“My hope and belief is that once it becomes safe and we can have volunteers again and people can go about their lives as normal as possible, people will return and we’ll be able to pick up right where we left off,” Barrett said.

One silver lining to the crisis is an increased awareness of food security, Hicks and others said.

“We’re trying to stay positive and hoping this enlightens and educates people about local food and access to it,” Hicks said.

snorthrop@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6023

Twitter: @northrop_samuel

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