I bought a hog this week from a nearby sustainable farm - my first. In my infinite wisdom and circular logic, I decided long ago that pigs were too high on the on the smartness chain to buy willy-nilly from just anywhere. I needed to be sure the pig we bought was treated well, with dignity as is due an animal with such curiosity and creativity, and shown the same respect in it's ending too.
So I contacted the farm months ago, long before “COVID” was a household word. It is a farm not far from ours with a reputation for well raised, tasty animals. They also process their animals at a meat locker keen on sustainability, with a slaughterhouse that uses Temple Grandin’s layout to ensure animals are as calm as possible in their last moments.
Thus began months of emails, of cut sheets and calls, of talking not only to the farm but also to the processor, of finding friends who also cared about where their meat was raised and figuring out the timing when we would all be able to handle an influx of sixty odd pounds of meat each.
To sum up the experience: it was a pain in the ass. And that’s not even counting the 4 hours of driving we had to do to pick the meat up and deliver it to said friends. This is why people don’t buy whole animals, I thought to myself every time I wrote an email and a thousand times on the long drive. This is why people just go to the supermarket and buy whatever is there, regardless of how an animal lived or died.
To be fair, some of the extra emails were due to changes that occurred because of The Virus, and were not the farm’s fault. We the also complicated things when we changed our minds about the order part way through.
But aren’t customers always fickle and complicated?
“When people are stressed out like they are now, they can create chaos,” Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm in California told me last week. I was interviewing her for the book I am writing, and I told her I was concerned smaller farms are becoming overwhelmed with the surge of interest in local food. What if consumers don’t have the best experience when the corona-chaos results in mistakes and lax customer service. “I think your concerns are valid,” Judith told me. “The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model is great, but at the same time, it is a relationship with all these people. Inherently there is a lot to manage there, especially when people are scared.”
Redmond explained that Full Belly had to take a step back to handle all of the calls and emails from new, interested customers, and to rethink how to handle the structural impacts that came along with the virus, like CSA drop site closures and the rerouting of 100s of existing members to new pick-up locations. But now that the farm is managing things better, Redmond says, she is excited to watch customers learn more about the benefits of relationships with local farms. “I think this is a potentially transformative moment in our lives.”
Throughout this pandemic local farms and small food distributors have been both delighted and completely unprepared for the new public interest in their products. Our local food cooperative for example, is thrilled so many people are joining and buying from Iowa farmers, but they also aren't prepared to handle the volume of business coming their way.
Yet with every day that passes, another industrial scale food processor announces a coronavirus outbreak – as of today a Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota is now the site of the largest concentration of cases in the country (735 positive tests are associated with the plant) and have closed three other plants (in Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania); a Tyson pork plant in Iowa closed with 186 cases; a corn processing plant in Iowa also reported 4; and 2 deaths were reported at a JBS meat packing facility where at least 50 employees were infected with the virus. These outbreaks reveal how our "highly efficient" giant processors are truly vulnerable, a choke point in our food system.
There is no easy answer as to how to create a food system that is healthier, more environmentally sound and can supply everyone with the food they want and need. For all of the complaining I've done about the way things are, I admit that I also have no clear vision as to what should take its place and how that system would work as a whole.
But perhaps that is the key to the solution – to not try to recreate a larger, more streamlined whole. With so much diversity in climate, in culture, in economics, maybe we don't need one system to feed us all in the same way.
Looking back on my whole hog purchase in hindsight now - was it really so much time I invested to have pork for the next year, and to be sure where it came from? Yes, the process could have been much more streamlined, automated and easy. And there is a lot of wisdom out there to help farms do things better and to provide support the scaling up quickly. Below are some groups who are trying. Maybe we can figure this out together?
CSA Innovation Network
The CSA Innovation Network is committed to gathering resources that will support CSA farmers and Technical Assistance (TA) providers. From implementing a financial assistance program, to developing best marketing practices, this library compiles case studies, toolkits, videos, and more
The CSA Innovation Network is also collecting resources on a separate page on their website for use during the COVID-19 Crisis
Slow Food National Resilience Fund
Small-scale food producers are struggling to pivot to new distribution methods, chefs and restaurants are trying to maintain their delicate cash flow, and food security is a growing concern as more than 15 million people claim unemployment.
Participation will be available to Slow Food chapters and communities who are actively collaborating with farmers, ranchers, fish-harvesters, chefs and others who 1) prioritize food access to vulnerable communities, 2) play a pivotal role in the local community, 3) respect the Slow Food philosophy of good, clean and fair food, 4) are not able to get enough support from state or federal funds.
ONLINE CALL TO ACTION | Activating Your Local Community Food & Resource Exchange | April 21st 3-4:30pm PT
CropMobster is a community resilience platform for sharing resources, trading food and supplies and building stronger local communities through mutual aid. It is moderated in partnership with leaders and students at University of California Merced.
Practical Advice on COVID-19: Purchase and Distribution of Food
This document is a case study of a group of 1700 people in a community in Wuhan that purchased food together as a group. Their concern was how to ensure that everyone has access to a stable source of food while obliged to stay at home during this special period?
This article describes a real case of community collective management of food purchasing (group buying) to illustrate how food purchasing and safe distribution is ensured during community isolation.
Dirt First (EcoFarm)
A deep dive with farmers and ranchers who will share their stories of resilience, especially during this challenging time in our lives. Connect with your peers to troubleshoot, gain insights, and exchange innovative solutions to help your farms and communities thrive. (Check back on website for scheduled times)
Slow Money (Northern California)
Resilience of our Food Sources. They need Slow Money Fast!
Farmers, Stores, Restaurants, Provisions
Place and Community Matter
An investor virtual event to fund food projects in the Bay Area