Along with restaurants, local farms in the food supply chain are facing big challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurant demand has dropped for meat, dairy and produce sourced from local farms, leaving farmers scrambling to find other ways to sell their product and earn income.
Barham Family Farm supplies beef, chicken, pork, eggs, duck, quail and rabbit to numerous well-known restaurants throughout Kansas City including The Farmhouse, Black Sheep & Market, The Antler Room, Hotel Indigo, Urban Cafe KC, Café Sebastienne and Brookside Poultry. Weekly orders dropped sharply from 16 to two once restaurants were no longer allowed to provide dine-in service during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“During winter when we are not attending the farmers' market, supplying restaurants is our sole income. It was a devastating loss for me and also the restaurants,” farmer Kenny Barham says.
Barham has donated products to a local food pantry, Crossroads Community Kitchen and Black Sheep Community Kitchen and Market. He adapted his business by selling eggs to Nature’s Own Health Market stores and also established other channels to sell goods from the farm. “We have been offering home deliveries,” Barham says. “We take orders online through our website. We have also opened a store on the farm. Those both have seen big growth in sales.”
Small local farms don’t have the same resources and safety net as larger agricultural operations, so every sale counts. Barham touts other advantages of locally-sourced food. “I think the big difference is the taste and the freshness and low carbon footprint. The money stays in the community,” he says. “It’s hard for local farmers to supply big chain restaurants. With farm-to-table restaurants that change with what’s in season, we can grow [specific food] for them. If it’s something we have in short supply, they run a special. If we run out, they understand.”
Barham “hopes and prays that this is over soon. Just like restaurants, we run on small margins.” Feeling the economic pinch, he says, “It’s hard for some people to see what shutting down restaurants does. It’s more than an inconvenience to diners.”
KC Farm School at Gibbs Road is one of 17 family and nonprofit farms that comprise The Kansas City Food Hub. Rather than selling direct-to-consumer, the farmer-owned and farmer-run cooperative has supplied the “middle market” of schools, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and grocery stores for the past five years. Temporary closings of schools, restaurants and other businesses during the pandemic has directly impacted the local farm network.
“That market has nearly evaporated for us over the past few weeks,” says Alicia Ellingsworth, sales and production director and member-owner of KC Farm School at Gibbs Road.
Members of The Kansas City Food Hub tapped their established network to communicate, adapt and respond to this challenge. “We’ve been working together for 10 years or more. We’re seeing lots of innovation and interest in collaboration since demand bottomed out,” says Ellingsworth. “Almost the next day after the news hit, we’ve seen an increase in [community-supported agriculture programs] at KC Farm School. CSA programs at local farms are filling up.”
However, farms in The Kansas City Food Hub are not ideally set up for individual distribution of farm produce and goods. Ellingsworth reached out on social media to gauge interest in a neighborhood-based program, which quickly earned attention.
“People are interested and see value in a safe, secure food supply from local farms,” says Ellingsworth. “They know it’ll be there. Farmers are nimble and will meet demand.”
The Hub developed a neighborhood farm box distribution system. While similar to a CSA program, the neighborhood model organizes a collective drop-off point for the area. East Brookside and Volker neighborhoods have signed up and two restaurants are participating. Three other neighborhoods are organizing enrollment.
“It looks like we will have capacity to bring on many more farmers. We’re always open to new farmers joining the cooperative, and this year we will sell products for farmers who aren’t members,” Ellingsworth says.
KC Farm School at Gibbs Road, Kansas City, Kansas, kcfarmschool.org
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and Cultivate Kansas City collaborate to help refugee families establish farm businesses through the New Roots for Refugees program. Normally, New Roots farmers sell produce and goods daily across 16 farmers' markets in the KC metro as well as restaurants including The Savoy at 21c, Webster House, Café Sebastienne, Blue Cross Café, The Rieger, Heirloom Bakery, Homesteader Café, The Antler Room, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, Happy Gillis and Columbus Park Ramen Shop.
New Roots for Refugees has become a critical bridge for many refugees in the Kansas City area.
Harvest begins in late April. Farm wholesale operations have not been impacted yet by the economic downturn of restaurants impacted by shelter in place orders and the temporary elimination of dine-in services. “We’ve been following the places we sell to and have seen that several are closed or only offering a limited menu,” says Cultivate KC program manager Semra Fetahovic.
New Roots plans to connect with wholesale clients “as our farmers start to harvest to see how we might be able to continue partnering with them, even if it looks different this season,” says Fetahovic.
Meanwhile, New Roots is promoting its CSA/Farm Share model, in which customers pick up produce orders once a week at one of four public locations throughout the metro. “We also offer private delivery to any group of 10 or more people in a centralized location,” Fetahovic says.
The Farm Share allows customers to pay upfront, in two payments, or in monthly increments that allow flexibility for those with tighter budgets. “We will also open an online shop. Customers can put together an order, and pick up at either the Farm Share sites or at another location completely,” Fetahovic says.
When customers sign up for the Farm Share, they have the option to select “share-a-share.” “That allows us to donate a weekly farm share to the Catholic Charities’ Family Support Centers where our food pantries are located,” says Meredith Walrafen, program manager of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
Donations may be made for an entire season or in $10 increments. Customers may sign up to make donations via the Farm Share and through an online farm store that will be launched in mid-April. “Food access is incredibly important to both of our agencies and we are actively looking at ways to address this within our programs,” Walrafen says.
New Roots will also partner with Pantry Goods, a no-waste bulk home delivery business, to deliver its Farm Shares and possibly other produce directly to homes for a fee.
The value of locally-sourced produce as part of the food supply chain seems more evident now.
“If anything, this global pandemic is emphasizing the importance of having small food supply chains,” says Fetahovic. “On a larger global scale, it’s hard to say what the impacts will be on food production and distribution.”
Fetahovic explains that potential border closures and limitations on migration could impact larger farms in the country that provide most of the produce in grocery stores. Larger farms require more farmers and workers. “They often have separate teams who harvest, transport to a packing house, wash, pack and transport again,” says Fetahovic. “Thus, potential COVID-19 outbreaks could negatively impact their ability to produce and move food. Produce grown by local farmers, in contrast, is likely handled by just a few people, if not only the farmer themselves. By supporting local farmers, we can create a resilient food system right here that does not rely on long supply chains and external factors such as migration, labor markets and distribution channels.”
“Everyone needs to eat, and there’s no better way to support our local economy right now than to buy fresh, locally-grown produce, and to donate if you can,” Walrafen adds.
Cultivate Kansas City, cultivatekc.org