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Responding to emerging farmer needs in light of COVID-19

Long before this global pandemic, farming was always a job that required incredible resilience, dedication, and creativity. Today, the COVID-19 crisis only adds to the many challenges that farmers already face, from narrow margins and tough working conditions to rapidly rising land prices and the uncertainties of a changing climate. In addition, this crisis shines a light on the cracks in our broken food system, underscoring our tight labor market, the vulnerability of farmworkers, disrupted supply chains, and strained food assistance programs.

With this perspective at the forefront, PCC Farmland Trust spent the month of April listening deeply to local farmers about what is needed to respond to this shifting landscape. Along with partners like the WA Young Farmers Coalition and others, Farm to Farmer Coordinator Amy Moreno-Sills presented on a Zoom call aimed at identifying the biggest barriers for farmers at this time. Over 500 local growers and other ag industry professionals participated, and there are more calls like this one underway. This past Earth Day, we hosted a community conversation with four farmers to hear more about how they are adapting in the face of dynamic change.

Through these conversations, we have been able to identify ways that we can pivot our resources to meet the most urgent needs being elevated by farmers. Below is a summary of what we have learned in the last few weeks, plus some inspiring stories about farm resilience.

The loss of old market opportunities calls for an urgent shift to new ones

In mid-March, reliable markets like restaurants, schools, and farmers markets closed overnight, causing farm businesses to turn on a dime to find new ways to get their products to consumers. Much of that pivot has included a shift to online sales and home delivery options, but there aren’t enough online markets to meet the supply. Among the most impacted by this shift are farm business owners for whom English is a second language as well as mid- and-late career farm owners, as many tend to have limited capacity to create online sales platforms. At the same time, Washington’s food assistance programs are strained and in need of reliable sources of food.

While navigating the challenges of COVID-19 as farm business owners themselves, the Trust’s two coordinators for Farm to Farmer are providing one-on-one technical assistance to connect farmers to existing markets and help them identify resource sharing opportunities via local, community-driven solutions. In addition, the Trust is working with partners to identify funding opportunities that promote local farm businesses as a key solution for feeding Washingtonians in need.

Safe working conditions and personal protective equipment (PPE) are essential

One thing we know for sure is that farm owners and workers need protection. And yet, as the farming season kicks into gear, farm businesses are concerned about ensuring the safety of their employees given the current shortage of PPE like masks and gloves. Though healthcare professionals need to be first in line as supplies become available, there is also a significant need across the agricultural sector.

In response, PCC Farmland Trust is working with Crafters Against Covid-19 Seattle and Splash Fabric to make and collect masks for farm owners, farm workers, and farmers market vendors in Pierce and Snohomish Counties, and we’re actively seeking more masks to continue this effort. Click here to learn how you can get involved.

Farmers across our community continue to exemplify resilience

Amidst the many challenges facing our farming communities at this time, we have seen so many inspiring examples of farmers working together to create solutions and continue to feed their neighbors.

PCC Farmland Trust farmers Ray and Tom Williams worked together with another Trust farmer, Joel Huesby, to harvest, mill, and deliver 580 pounds of local, organic flour to their community food bank in Walla Walla in early April. Over the last few weeks, local residents have been organizing friends and family to conduct bulk orders of flowers and food products, helping to get product from farms into the city. This type of community collaboration has been extremely helpful to farmers who don’t have an active online presence, established online stores, or delivery functions in place.

During our event on food systems resilience this past Earth Day, we heard amazing stories from local farmers about ways they are adapting and responding to the current crisis. Amidst all of the uncertainties that they face, folks like Elizabeth Bragg of Long Hearing Farm shared that “Resilience is a daily practice. And I know we can be a strong foundation for our community during this time.”

If there is one thing PCC Farmland Trust has learned in our 20 years of working side by side with local growers, it’s that farmers are adaptable, entrepreneurial, and incredibly resilient. That notion couldn’t be truer in this current moment. With the ingenuity and energy being put forward by local farmers to problem solve, our hope is that we can find ways to overcome the inequities in our food system and create new, lasting opportunities to provide fresh, local food to our communities long after this crisis is over.

Check out this post to learn more about ways you can join us in our efforts to support local farms.