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Local farmers adjust and adapt sale models amid coronavirus pandemic

CFM summer produce.JPG

Customers choose from bountiful summer produce from Cate's Corner Farm. All vendors are spaced out 10-20 feet apart, depending where they are in the Market. Photo courtesy of Maggie Funkhouser.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the size of Split Acre Farm and mis-contextualized Joe Tedrow and Lisbeth Rasmussen’s involvement with the land. The article has been updated to reflect the proper acreage of leased land. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

Despite what appears to be an increasing demand for local food, losses in sales may be catastrophic for some farms. Local farmers have not felt the challenges of the pandemic equally — and even some of those selling out weekly on brand-new online stores have not managed to recover their pre-coronavirus income.

Additional labor 

Lisbeth Rasmussen and Joe Tedrow run Split Acre Farm on 13 acres of leased land in Rougemont. Typically, they sell only at farmers' markets. The pandemic changed that.

In March, after witnessing some local markets close, they started a Community Supported Agriculture effort, which works like a seasonal local food subscription service: customers pay up front to receive a share of whatever a farm produces every week for a season.

Rasmussen said they sized their Community Supported Agriculture shares to be able to cover rent and utilities and pay their two part-time employees, including sick time. She said they hoped to use Community Supported Agriculture as a safety net and continue selling at the market.

Rasmussen said she saw high demand for their Community Supported Agriculture shares. But for Split Acre, she said running it was not as profitable as selling at the market — it required more labor.

"We're spending two days a week as a crew, additional time that we didn't used to use, packaging orders, working on the website, on new food safety protocols," she said. "All of this additional labor is going into the same crops that we were selling for the same price last year."

Markets and farms alike now require more labor to sell the same product. Maggie Funkhouser, the Carrboro Farmers Market's manager, said three part-time employees from the Town of Carrboro help implement social distancing at their Saturday market.

The Carrboro Farmers Market has remained open through the pandemic. It's hard to say from market attendance whether sales have increased, Funkhouser explained, because the market has encouraged customers to come alone for quick, focused visits. 

A drop in incomes

Seventy-six percent of local farms saw their income drop as a result of COVID-19, according to a survey by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a nonprofit which advocates for and supports local organic farming in North and South Carolina. A third of farms surveyed lost more than $1,000 a week.

Roland McReynolds, the association's executive director, said he expected the drops in agritourism and restaurant sales, but he did not expect that 68 percent of farms would see decreased sales at farmers' markets.

The association's report said many farmers plainly stated their operations would be forced out of business if overall market conditions didn't improve by the end of the summer. 

Months later, McReynolds said the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has received increasing calls from farmers who don't know how they will make loan payments due in September and October. 

"Anecdotally, we certainly feel like there continue to be some farms in jeopardy," McReynolds said.

Going online

The Hillsborough Farmers Market has been suspended due to the pandemic.

Darin Knapp, owner of RambleRill Farm in Hillsborough, and member of the market's leadership team, said the market first closed because their usual location, UNC Healthcare Hillsborough, prohibited events. Knapp said ultimately, the farmer's market could not find another venue to reopen.

Many farmers have had to navigate a transition to selling online. According to an N.C. State University report from April, which surveyed 194 farms, 42 percent of farms have seen an increase in online sales.

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Certain farmers have struggled to meet consumer demand.

Daniel Tregeagle, assistant professor and extension specialist at N.C. State, said online sales present an equity issue for rural farms.

"If your local internet is bad -- and it can be in rural areas -- it makes transitioning online harder than in an area where you have better internet service," Tregeagle said.

RambleRill farm's online store sells out every week, Knapp said. He said it's managed to replace the income from lost agritourism events and the closed farmers market, but it simply doesn't have enough produce for everyone who’s looking.

"We didn't plan for a season with as many customers as have wanted to be a part of it," Knapp said. | @DTHCityState

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