For farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing how they do business as restaurants remain shut and people stay indoors.
For Siri Erickson-Brown, who runs Local Roots Farm near Duvall with her partner, the pandemic has provided no shortage of challenges. One of the biggest for her family is figuring out child care while running a farm.
“Any two-income household where people have jobs, especially where you own your own business and don’t really have any alternatives,” she said. “We’re just kind of scrambling every day.”
Keeping her employees healthy, finding the right model for distributing produce and buying seed have all been challenges, both for Erickson-Brown and farmers around the valley.
Cynthia Krass, director of the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance, which works with farmers in the region, said there’s been a shift to farm stands and direct-distribution models as restaurants remain shuttered.
Direct-distribution plans, where produce is mailed to buyers, have been in high demand. The Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Cooperative sold out of its spring subscriptions already, and summer slots are going fast.
“People are buying, consumers are generally responding by wanting to buy direct,” Krass said.
For Ryan Lichttenegger of Steel Wheel Farm, it’s been a balancing act between trying to predict how much demand there will be, and how many people to hire. His farm has a full crew returning from previous years, but he’s been fielding requests from a number of people who are stuck at home and want to work.
“We’re pretty set for labor, although with the uncertainty of outlets, most of our business was to restaurants and farmers markets,” he said.
Lichttenegger said the pandemic is creating a renewed interest in local foods. The onsite farm stand at Steel Wheel has seen an uptick in customers. It has been the same at Local Roots.
As the pandemic has unfolded, stories of grocery stores running out of staple products has been commonplace.
“Our customers are really appreciative for local food, and they realize how fragile the U.S. food chain is,” he said.
The foods farmers usually ship to restaurants is a different mix than direct-distribution models require. Farmers are still deciding which crops they should grow, and how much. Erickson-Brown said she has until the end of May to decide.
Getting seed has a mixed bag for the two farmers. Lichttenegger said his local distributor was fully stocked, while Erickson-Brown said there has been some trouble getting the variety they need.
Some seed companies around the country have stopped accepting new orders so they can fill their regular customers’s demand.
While the owners of Steel Wheel and Local Roots farms seem determined, and even somewhat optimistic about the future, other farmers are having more trouble adapting. Krass said farmers that were already in distress, or had significant debt, could be in even more trouble.
As layoffs for jobs off the farm affect families, the loss of income can provide another problem. Government at every level has rolled out programs to help farms. The federal government is helping Lichttenegger make payroll, and there are farm loans and food assistance too.
But the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still unknown.
Erickson-Brown said she’s projecting to produce only about two-thirds of what the farm would grow in an average year. And beyond that, she’s thinking about long-term changes.
“We’ve got several years of pretty majorly disrupted operations for all of us,” she said. “As we’re all adjusting, I think there’s going to be some cool opportunities for local food.”