Customers buy vegetables at the North Bend Farmers Market opening day in 2019. File photo

Customers buy vegetables at the North Bend Farmers Market opening day in 2019. File photo

Local farmers adapting to changing world

As the pandemic set in and economy struggled, local farmers evolved their business models.

By Corey Morris

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the world does business, and Snoqualmie Valley farmers say their success has been possible through quick adaptations.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee followed other states (and other countries) when he issued a stay-home order for Washington in the face of the pandemic. Businesses were closed and incomes were severed for many workers. Essential businesses remained open, and of those essential businesses were grocery stores.

Supplying the grocery stores are large farming operations throughout the country, but local farmers also contribute to the food supply chain. When hoarding runs on grocery store chains diminished local stocks, local farmers figured out how to step in. Stepping in has led to some farmers and farm programs actually increasing its standard operations.

“It’s a really important time for food, and for locally-grown and supporting food, especially when people are seeing grocery store shelves,” said Nadja Wilson of Carnation Farms. “The grocery store scene has changed… It’s just a weird time for food.”

At Carnation Farms, a nonprofit organization with farming operations and educational programs, adapting to the changes has been key to its success. The farm stand was declared an essential business and it saw a boom in business as grocery stores struggled to keep up.

Wilson says Carnation Farms created and then leaned into its online sales capabilities. Now, it is offering delivery of its products.

“I built, personally, just a really quick online delivery system, and that was happening across the country. There was a big forum where a bunch of farmers came online and talked about what they’re doing in their businesses across the country, and a lot of them were switching to online and it was saving them,” Wilson said. “We have a small inventory for delivery, but that was a really interesting thing to have to pivot that quickly. We didn’t have that service before, so that’s been interesting.”

Residents throughout the state are ordered to stay home, so they’re cooking more than they had in the recent past, Wilson said. That’s created a boom in the demand for local fresh ingredients, and as such Carnation has seen an increase in community supported agriculture (CSA) — a produce subscription-type service.

“Farmers provide food, they box it up and they either deliver it or have pick up points… It’s a way to buy directly from the farms and the farmers, instead of going to the market or the farm stands,” Wilson explained. “There are a lot of CSAs in the Valley, and they’re doing really well because people are cooking more at home and wanting access to locally grown food.”

Jill Farrant, executive director of SnoValley Tilth, reported a similar boom in CSA sales.

“They’re really seeing a huge increase,” Farrant said. “A lot of farmers either have CSAs, they’re seeing an increase in sales from their CSAs, or a lot of farmers are switching modes and opening up new CSAs.”

Hit the hardest during the pandemic has been flower farmers, Farrant said. Seattle markets have been closed due to COVID-19 concerns, and flowers were a staple in those markets.

“It’s been a really tough time (for farmers) to have to quickly adjust and reach customers directly, but it’s been encouraging to see a lot of communities rallying around that,” Farrant said. “Farm stands have been opening up early just to sell flowers, doing a lot to help them. Seattle markets has really been working hard to reopen those markets… That’s really encouraging because it seems like they’re adjusting and that’s leveling out.”

Both SnoValley Tilth and Carnation Farms are somewhat atypical in that they both rely on grant funding for some of their programs. Grants have been difficult to procure, both Wilson and Farrant said.

“Grant funding is being pivoted to go toward COVID. Philanthropic work is really shifting and changing, and it’s going to be a really tough year for a nonprofit across the board… Some of them are going to do OK, but others are really struggling,” Wilson said. “It’s such a gamble when you apply for grant funding anyway. I’ve already had one grant declined just because of COVID… A lot of grant programs will probably shift gears. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen… The opportunities are much more narrow now.”

That lack of grant funding, along with having to suspend some services (like catering and event hosting) has led to some cuts at Carnation Farms.

“Over time we had to cancel a bunch of events — classes and activities,” Wilson said. “We’ve had to pivot that online, so we’re doing an online poultry processing open house. We’re doing an online plant sale, where people drive by and pick up their plants in early May… Carnation Farms is kind of unique in that we have that big event space, so we’ve had to cancel all of that as well.”

Those cuts resulted in the loss of five staff members and the former executive director resigned. Wilson now is serving as executive director.

“Definitely the youth programs were a percentage of our nonprofit organization, so that took a real hit and our budget did get adjusted because of that,” Wilson said. “And definitely on the culinary and hospitality side.”

But on the culinary front, it hasn’t all been a bust for Carnation Farms.

“That team is doing prepared food for the farm stand, so they’ve switched gears,” Wilson said.

The chef is now cooking “locally grown, prepared soups and take-home dishes, and we’re selling those frozen out of the farm stand,” Wilson added.

The flagship Farmers in Training program at Carnation Farms is still going ahead as planned. Young farmers began their season-long internship at the farm last week, Wilson said. Carnation Farms has a massive property with 86 buildings, so it’s possible for the new farmers to continue their work on the farms while observing social distancing guidelines.

Meanwhile, the poultry side of the Carnation Farms business model has seen a boom as well. The farm continues to raise poultry for meat, but the demand for eggs has been hard to keep up with.

“Right now, chickens are laying a lot more, in terms of our flocks, but people are buying more eggs and cooking at home more,” Wilson said. “The other day I went to my friends house and traded two dozen eggs for a poem and some dish soap.”

(Wilson confirmed that the poem was worth it.)

Pivoting, adapting, changing — it’s what farmers are doing, and it’s what farmers have done.

“It is the nature of farmers to be resilient. We’re seeing that with farmers. They’re being incredibly adaptable and incredibly resilient through this,” Farrant said. “It always moves me how noble the efforts of our farming community are — they’ve really had to band together.”

But the farmers can’t succeed entirely on their own — they need support from residents, especially when it comes to their additional programs, like education and training.

“this has been next level. This is something that really requires community support,” Farrant said. “It really is a huge 180 for every one of our farmers, but I’m seeing success. I’m seeing our farmers come through for our communities here. We’re looking forward to a bountiful season.”

Certainly, Wilson and Farrant recognize their obligation to the general public as farmers — their charge, if you will.

“Making sure that you also have an opportunity to provide food to those in need, so figuring out channels where you can donate food to the food banks, however you can make a difference there… If there’s extra food, make sure it doesn’t go to waste because there’s lots of hungry people. The economy has changed and people need food,” Wilson said. “We’re kind of on the front lines of making sure people are fed in this country…”

Based on the changes SnoValley Tilth has seen to demand, Farrant suggested the general public might be recognizing how important the local farmers are too.

“It’s never been more apparent than it is now how important the viability of local agriculture is,” Farrant said. “I think we’re seeing that shift in consumer actions, so we’re seeing a lot of shift toward supporting direct sales through farms.”

What the normal everyday will look like after the pandemic has calmed and the stay-home orders are lifted is still uncertain. Further, it’s uncertain how many permanent changes to everyday life will remain in the long run. Farrant waxed philosophical on those same questions.

“In any kind of great tragedy or any kind of upheaval like this, we also build a lot of potential energy. So I see that there’s a lot of potential for long-term shifts that are going to support local agriculture,” Farrant said.

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