The Effects of COVID-19 on the Hudson Valley Farms

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The Sow Must Go On

The Effects of COVID-19 on the Hudson Valley Farms

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Owner Amanda Skuza at Locust Hill Farm Market in Millbrook - PHOTO BY DANIELLE CAROLEI
  • Photo by Danielle Carolei
  • Owner Amanda Skuza at Locust Hill Farm Market in Millbrook

"Whether or not there's a pandemic, the cows still need to be milked," says Kam Bellamy, executive director of Churchtown Dairy, a biodynamic farm in Hudson. "They're blissfully unaware of everything that's going on."

The 250-acre farm, a legacy of Peggy Rockefeller's farmland preservation efforts, produces raw milk from 28 dairy cows plus beef, pork, and cheese. The onsite store is currently closed to the public, accepting email orders for curbside pickup. "We're known to be a high-quality producer, so our sales have really gone up during this time," Bellamy says. "We've seen a lot more people coming to the store for our milk and our meat especially, but also for our cheese." 

Churchtown Dairy's raw milk certification and direct-to-consumer sales model has saved it from the economic peril most commercial milking operations in the state are facing. According to New York's State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball, 50 percent of dairy produced in the state is normally sold to the food service industry. With schools closed and restaurant sales slowed to a mere trickle, demand for dairy has plummeted, causing some New York farms to dump milk. And yet, demand at grocery stores and food pantries has grown exponentially, but in order to shift to these new buyers, milk must be packaged differently, with the availability of plastic one-gallon containers limiting the volume of milk that can be processed and distributed.

A Diverse Industry

While milk is by far the largest agricultural commodity in the state, at the time of the last USDA Ag Census in 2017, there were more than 33,000 farms in New York, which generated an annual revenue of $5.75 billion across a diverse portfolio ranging from apples to maple syrup to corn and Christmas trees. 

In an already unpredictable industry subject to nature's flights of fancy and the Trumpian rollercoaster of international politics, novel factors brought about by the pandemic—ranging from the delayed arrival of migrant farmworkers to consumer panic-buying to school and restaurant closures—are shifting the economic landscape under farmers' feet.

And still, on-farm activities from milking to pruning and planting have necessarily continued amid COVID-19. "Every farm business is different, and everyone has a different kind of challenge during this time," says Matt Igoe, acting director of the Rondout Valley Growers Association, a farmer-led nonprofit that advocates for the viability of local agriculture and the preservation of farmland. "But everyone is doing the same thing—running their businesses, planting, extremely busy, and recreating sales models and sales channels. It's a difficult, fast-paced, furious moment."

What makes the Hudson Valley such an amazing place to buy local food—the incredible diversity of types and sizes of farms—means that COVID-19 impacts vary. Basically, how individual farms are faring at the moment differs based on product and operation size. "It's a good thing for people who have a direct sales outlet. For those who don't, like [commercial] dairy, it's hard," says Jennifer Fimbel, senior resource educator for agriculture for Cornell Cooperative Extension and Dutchess County ag navigator.

A Purple Patch for CSAs and Farm Stores

A study released on April 15 by Hunter PR confirmed what we already knew intuitively: stuck at home, Americans are cooking more. A lot more. And with the current anxiety around supermarkets, demand is shifting to other sources. "People are wary of grocery stores, especially with produce, which comes from who knows where and was touched by who knows who before it gets to you," says Bob Fade, of Fiddlehead Farm in Rosendale. "They are seeing the importance of knowing where their food comes from, if they hadn't before."

As part of this trend, CSA signups are soaring from across the country. "Demand for farm-fresh food has rapidly increased," says Kate Anstreicher, program coordinator for Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. "The waitlist for our CSA is longer than it's ever been before, and our meat freezers are emptying out." Glynwood also manages the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition, and several participating farms report having sold out of CSA shares much earlier in the year than normal. 

"Normally, I count completely on the Woodstock farm market, and it doesn't seem that secure," says Aileyah Kvashay of Clove Valley Community Farm, a two-acre veggie operation in High Falls. "I've committed to prioritizing the CSA, and whatever I have left over I'll bring to market, which is a complete reversal."

Rather than a CSA, Fiddlehead Farm offers a buying club program. Last year the program had about a dozen members, this year Fade says they've already passed 40 signups. "People keep asking 'Is there more room? Is there more room?' People want to support a local farm, and they like the security of knowing where their food comes from." 

And it's not just vegetable operations that are seeing a boost. For Kyle Jaster of Atticus Farm, who raises pastured hogs and meat birds on 10 sylvan acres in the foothills of West Shokan, consumer demand far exceeded his expectations. "We have seen a 400-percent increase in on-farm sales, doing it contactless through our online store," he says. "I haven't released the CSA yet, but the customers from last year are already reaching out and buying whatever product I have in stock, saying, 'Save me two dozen pork chops on top of my next year's share." 

To keep up with demand, Jaster has doubled the number of chickens he's raising in 2020 and increased the number of pigs by 50 percent. He would scale up even more but is limited by the capacity of local meat harvesting facilities. 

"I don't think people ever realized before what their customers were willing to do," Igoe says, "Most farms would never have even guessed that people would drive to five different farms if they had too."

While individual farms are logging increased sales for their products, it's also an especially good time for farm stores that aggregate local goods, simplifying the circuit shoppers' need to tick off their whole grocery list. In Millbrook, the family-run Locust Hill Farm Market has nearly tripled their business since lockdown began, all while managing homeschooling for their kids.

"We used to see maybe 10 sales per day—and that was a good day during the week. Now we are filling about 20 to 25 orders daily, and on the weekends we are seeing upwards of 40 to 50," says Amanda Skuza, co-owner of Locust Hill.

Their farm store, which has been open seven days a week since March 13, accepts email orders for curbside pickup the following day. Given the growing demand, they've increased the volume and diversity of the products they stock. In addition to their own farm-fresh beef, pork, and chicken, the market is selling as much locally sourced produce as possible, cheeses, fresh bread, milk, and snack foods. Whereas they used to get once-weekly deliveries for most of their products, now everyone from the bakers to the veggie farmers are dropping off products daily. "We have added so many new products with the online form. People just want to shop with us," Skuza says happily. 

Nearby, Fishkill Farms, a 270-acre apple orchard and farm, is seeing record signups for their fruit and vegetable CSA, surpassing 300 members in the beginning of May. "We have seen a huge change in buy-in demand," says Katie Ross, marketing, communications, and events manager for the farm. Like Locust Hill, the farm store business is also booming amid the altered COVID-19 reality, registering two to three times the normal number of sales for this time of year.

"We're supplementing what we normally carry with some common items you'd find in a grocery store, like mayo, mustard, and whatnot," Ross says. "We're trying to carry what people are asking for."

Agritourism Heads into the Unknown

Despite the farm store's current surge in sales, Fishkill Farms' owner and operator, Josh Morgenthau, is still anxious about the rest of the season. "We are devoting a tremendous amount of time and energy to planning out how we can maintain critical aspects of the business in a completely different world," says Morgenthau, who is envisioning new systems for everything from U-pick reservations to online preordering for the farmers' markets to handwashing stations. "It's a tremendous lift at a time of year that's already extremely busy," he says.

Assuming the farm can find a safe, socially distant way for people to visit, the million-dollar question Morgenthau—and all agritourism businesses—still face is: Will people come? "And if they do, will we be able to maintain the level of sales we need to cover our costs?" he wonders. About 40 percent of the farm's revenue in a typical year comes from food and beverages consumed on-farm, including their own line of craft hard cider. Morgenthau adds, "It's unclear whether we'll be able to make up for any of that revenue."

Plants ordered from Clove Valley CSA’s new online store packed for curbside pickup at the farm in High Falls.
  • Plants ordered from Clove Valley CSA’s new online store packed for curbside pickup at the farm in High Falls.

From pick-your-own to petting zoos, agritourism operations are in the same boat, nervously preparing for the season while battling uncertainty. Hull-O Farm in Greene County is an all-natural meat farm, but they rely heavily on income from interactive farm stays where guests help with farm chores like animal feeding and care, as well as fall activities like their famed 10-acre corn maze.

"The good news is that our all-natural meat business has picked up tremendously," says Sherry Hull. "And the sad news is that because of the COVID-19, my farm stay had dropped off to next to nothing until just recently. We were asked by our local government to not allow guests in our accommodations for a while as the virus was peaking. So we had a dramatic drop in income." Guest visits have resumed, with the Hulls asking guests to self-screen and only come if they are healthy and haven't been in contact with anyone infected. On the farm, both guests and workers are practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

"As it stands right now, we are going to plant the corn for our corn maze and we plan on doing hayrides in the fall," Hull says. "But If COVID-19 comes back with a force, like some predictions have mentioned, then for everybody's safety, we probably won't [offer these activities.]"

Testing New Models

With the pub, cafe, and beer garden closed, and U-pick operations still in question, the 100-acre Pennings Farm in Warwick is relying solely on retail sales from their farm market and garden center at the moment. Customers order online and pick up in the parking lot. "It's kind of like we've gone full circle from where we started as a business 35 years ago," says Steve Pennings. "We have become a farm market that's online. And we've increased our lines of groceries and produce to meet the needs of what people are asking for, as well as selling our growlers of beer and cider." Products span the gamut from housemade zucchini nut bread to Tonjes aged farmstead cheese to a four-pack of Gatorade.

This increase and diversification of sales is something that farm stands across the Hudson Valley are echoing, from Damn Good Honey Farm in Kerhonkson to Brookby Farm in Dover Plains. And the benefits ripple outward to the whole ag community, with farm stores providing a retail outlet for other ag operations that don't have a built-in direct-to-consumer market. 

Just as companies in every sector across the world have had to adjust to working from home, farms, too are being forced to modernize—both in sales models and technology. "There was some adaptation that had to happen before this, but this has forced the hand of small farms to change," says Igoe of RVGA. "In some ways, this is a terrible moment because everyone is on the line, but we're trying to look at it as an opportunity to take on new sales challenges that previously were avoided."

The current and future success of most farm markets relies on savvy use of the internet—from grocery orders to U-pick reservations. For farmers, who are used to having their hands in the dirt, this has been an adjustment, with many farmers lacking the technical know-how and the time to set up and maintain these systems, and have had to call in backup from friends, family members, and interns. "Our website has a full list of what is in stock," says Skuza of Locust Hill. "We are updating it almost daily." 

An online point of sale system may be the golden ticket for this era of business, but it has its own downsides—namely the increased administrative component. "I'm getting so many calls and texts and messages," says Kvashay of Clove Valley. "I know a lot of farmers who are working all day on the farm and all night on the computer, but that is so hard to keep up. If I put in a 12-hour farm day, do I really want to go check emails after?"

Growing with Purpose

And yet, tech logistics and admin headaches aside, many farmers are finding fulfillment in their work amid this period of uncertainty. When lockdown went into effect in March, and initial anxieties about food scarcity and supply chains soared, Kvashay found renewed purpose in her vocation. "It was kind of exhilarating," she says. "I felt like, wow, this is my time to shine and grow as much food as I can to make sure my friends don't starve."

Ironically, this was supposed to be Kvashay's first time in 11 seasons transitioning to part-time work off the farm through a teaching position with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. But with schools closed, she's logging long hours in the fields and soaking up every minute. "I really do love farming, so it was an easy pill to swallow," she says. "It's all I want to be doing right now. I wish the days were longer so I could work more." 

For Jaster of Atticus Farm, the pandemic caused restaurant orders for his pork and chicken to bottom out completely. Yet he has replaced 100 percent of this income with direct-to-consumer sales. "With COVID, it feels like what we're doing is providing a service as opposed to a luxury," he says "And that feels really good—to be able to feed people really good quality food and let them be confident in not just the safety of it, but the difference in quality and flavor. As people are cooking more, hopefully they are noticing that local farmers make a better product."

Labor Shortages

When US consulates and embassies around the world closed on March 17 due to COVID-19, panic spread through the farming community. Migrant workers constitute roughly 10 percent of the nation's agricultural workforce—204,801 H-2A temporary work visas were issued in 2019. The indefinite closure of the consulates threatened dire consequences for commercial farmers and the supply of produce, prompting the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to pen a strongly worded letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The letter didn't mince words: "The failure to take necessary action to protect our food supply will result in bare shelves in grocery store produce aisles, not from panic buying, but as the result of the federal government directly causing a shortage of critical labor."

Just over a week later, on March 28, the State Department reversed course, announcing that consulates would not only resume processing H-2A applications but also expand the group of applicants who could get visas without an in-person interview. Still, the gap in processing and new system have delayed the arrival of workers on farms throughout the Hudson Valley and the US by up to six weeks, adding further ambiguity to a season already rife with unknowns. 

At the iconic Hepworth Farms in Milton, the first group of experienced H-2A workers arrived from Mexico in late April. "They arrived a month later than expected but in time to keep us on track with additional work required to catch up," says Gail Hepworth. They've already postponed the flight reservation for one Guatemalan worker twice, due to visa processing delays, and the commercial organic farm is still counting on more than 70 workers to come in from Guatemala, Mexico, and Jamaica later in the season.

If the first round of seasoned migrant crewmembers hadn't arrived in time, the farm season would have looked drastically different. "Frankly, we would have reduced our acreage from 550 to less than 50," Hepworth says. "Our workers are highly trained in our diverse farm model. Each job is critically important for a commercially successful harvest. Some of our workers have been here for over 15 years. They are why we can do what we do." 

The staggered arrival of workers also presents a logistical challenge with housing and task delegation. Fishkill Farm has separated living quarters for year-round farm workers and seasonal laborers. "When our first six crew members arrived, we kept them separate from those that have been on the farm consistently," says Ross. "They've been doing solitary work and those who've traveled together and are working together." 

From housing to hygiene, farms small and large are rolling out new safety protocols. In early April, Cornell Cooperative Extension distributed 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per county to farm operations. "We have handwashing stations and we are washing everything constantly," says Ross, echoing many other area farmers. "We're trying to keep our distance as best we can, but some farm equipment doesn't allow for that."

Emergency Relief

The Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) offices throughout the Hudson Valley are doing their part to drive traffic to farms. In Ulster County, the extension produced an interactive map of all the farms in the county. Across the river in Dutchess County, CCE partnered with Dutchess Tourism to produce a list of all open farm stands—41 in total, not counting the seasonal stands that will open soon, come first harvest. "There are only two towns in all of Dutchess County that don't have farm stores: Amenia and Pawling," Fimbel says. "It's pretty impressive, the spread and how they've adapted."

CCE employees are also working to connect farmers struggling economically with state and federal relief programs, ranging from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to Economic Injury Disaster Loans program (EIDL), which provides forgivable loans of up to $10,000, and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

Aileah Kvashay planting potatoes at Clove Valley CSA, in collaboration with Back Home Farm.
  • Aileah Kvashay planting potatoes at Clove Valley CSA, in collaboration with Back Home Farm.

"Farmers in general don't like to ask for help very often," says Fimbel of CCE. "But for some, that $10,000 could make or break them. There's a lot of ups and downs right now, but that's what farming is."

At the national level, on May 5, Congressman Antonio Delgado introduced the Relief for America's Small Farmers Act in the House, while Kirsten Gillibrand pushed for the same in the Senate. The bill would offer debt forgiveness across three types of USDA farm loans, allowing more small farmers to remain operational during COVID-19. "New York's 19th Congressional District is home to nearly 5,000 farm operations that are essential to our upstate way of life," Delgado said in a press conference in May, adding that the bill would provide "a critical lifeline for our small farmers."

From weather to consumer behavior and buying patterns to the progression of the virus, the season ahead is full of unknowns. "My grandfather always said, as a farmer you have to be an eternal optimist," says Nick Cipollone of Barthel Farms in Ellenville. "We are optimistic that our farm and our community will get through this and come out stronger on the other side. We really don't have a choice."

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