What Makes a Local Food System Resilient? Lessons from Small and Midsize Farms during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Final report for GNE20-245

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,654.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Massachusetts Amherst
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Elizabeth Brabec
University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Project Information

Summary:

Scholars and practitioners have documented the importance of resilience for the future of our food system. Yet, there remain major gaps in understanding how local food actors make decisions during crises and how those decisions relate to building a resilient food system. Examining the experiences of small and mid-size farm operators in Hampshire County and Franklin County, Massachusetts during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, this project investigates disruptions in production, supply chains, markets, labor, and food safety requirements. Using multiple case study design (Yin 2009) and mixed-methods (demographic survey, document review, and in-depth interviews) this research deepens our understanding of 1) what strategies small and mid-size farm operators used in response to COVID-19, 2) how farm operators made decisions during and after the crisis, 3) what challenges and opportunities farm operators faced in making adaptations,  4) how small and mid-size farm businesses were changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial findings suggest that farm operators in the region demonstrated adaptive capacity throughout the first two years of the pandemic, which they often employed effectively to transform their farm businesses toward their goals. Yet, findings suggest that farmer’s goals and their conceptualizations of resilience may be more nuanced than historically understood. While pathways toward resilience are often defined by state agencies and expert knowledge, this research suggests that farmers and food workers have distinct visions, and the agency, to co-create more just, equitable, and regenerative food futures. This project invites us to consider, if resilience is understood as the ability to bounce forward, then who decides what that future looks like? And whose interests are prioritized in that future? Through collaboration with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), findings will be shared directly with farmers and food business owners, local food practitioners, and community members to build knowledge around how the local food system can respond, adapt, and transform in the face of ongoing crisis and disaster, toward a more just and sustainable future.

Project Objectives:

1. To understand what strategies small and midsize farm operators used in response to the COVID19 pandemic

  • How did business plans and models change?
  • How did mission, vision, or goals change?
  • How did production plans and practices change? 
  • How did food safety plans and practices change?
  • How did marketing practices and plans change?
  • How did hiring and labor practices change?
  • How did operational budgets and financing change?
  • How did division of labor change?

2. To understand how small and mid-size farm operators made decisions during and after the COVID19 crisis

  • What factors influenced proactive vs. reactive approaches?
  • What factors influenced decisions to adapt vs. other options (i.e. to close temporarily or permanently)
  • What barriers did farm operators face in enacting decisions?
  • What other factors influenced decision-making?

3. To understand what challenges and opportunities small and midsize farm operators faced in making adaptations during the COVID19 crisis

  • What were the primary challenges/barriers farm operators faced in making adaptations?
  • How did farm operators overcome barriers?
  • What barriers could not be overcome?
  • What factors contributed to successful adaptation?

4. To understand how small and midsize farm businesses were changed by the COVID19 crisis

  • How is the farm business different after the crisis?
  • What adaptations remain after the crisis subsided? Why?

Deepening our understanding of how small farm operators respond, adapt, and transform amidst crisis will contribute to both ensuring that small and midsize farm businesses remain viable and stabilize the local economy during and in the wake of disaster, and assure food security during times of crisis.

Introduction:

The purpose of this project was to document the strategies small and mid-size farm operators in Hampshire and Franklin counties in western Massachusetts used in response to disruptions in production, supply chains, markets, labor, and food safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. This research serves to deepen our understanding of how farmers in the Northeast build resiliency by remaining productive and profitable in the face of crisis. 

In recent years, a string of disasters have rocked the world, including most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected over 572 million people globally (World Health Organization, 2022). With climate change driving these crises, it is evident that crisis is the new normal. Food security continues to be a concern during these disruptions. While the conventional food system is lauded for its ability to feed billions of people, it also leaves over 850 million people worldwide suffering from chronic undernourishment (World Bank, 2007). In addition, the adverse impacts of conventional agriculture to the global environment, local economies, community social structures, and public health are well-documented and severe (Altieri, 2009; Holt-Gimenez & Shattuck, 2011).

In response to this increasingly unsustainable system, the local food system offers an alternative - a food system that works to increase environmental sustainability (Altieri, 2000), foster vibrant community-based economies (Gibson-Graham, 2006), cultivate purposeful connections to place (DeLind, 2002), and promote food justice and health equity (Weiler et al., 2015). At the heart of thriving local food systems are small and mid-sized farm operations feeding their own communities. Small farms are defined as those with revenue less than $350,000 and mid-size farms are defined as those with revenue between $350,000 and $999,999 (USDA Economic Research Service, 2020).

The Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts has a rich lineage of diverse family farming. Today about 2,045 small and midsize farms keep 175,000 acres of farmland in active production in the region (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017). However, these farmers faced significant challenges in responding to COVID-19. Many small and mid-size farms raise labor-intensive products. With regulations around social distancing, masking, and travel changing rapidly and drastically between the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 and the ongoing pandemic conditions in 2022, many farmers have struggled to recruit and retain a skilled labor force. In addition, market access has shifted dramatically, including periods of complete economic shutdown in March and April 2020, when all institutions, restaurants, and businesses were closed, to periods of a mixed and on-again-off again openings and closures throughout 2020 and 2021. The opening and closing of different sectors of the economy has a direct impact on where and how small and mid-size farmers market their products, requiring farmers to shift their production, packaging, and distribution operations rapidly to ensure their products reach customers. Today, in 2022, while many business, institutions, and communities are open and operating in-person, we continue to grapple with an economy struggling with rising inflation, a shifting labor-force with increasing demands for equitable pay and benefits (New York Times, 2022), record-breaking housing shortages and housing unaffordability (Habitat for Humanity, 2022), and continually less predictable weather patterns that demonstrate the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. All this endures while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, with over 145,000 new cases each day and little social or political support for health and safety protocols that would require a return to social distancing or mask policies.

The small and mid-size farms of the pandemic era have been operating in a constantly fluctuating socio-political, economic, ecological, and public health landscape for over two years and three summer seasons. The result is both significant strain on the local food economy and on individual farmers’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as creative, dynamic, regenerative, and resilient adaptations toward new forms of farm businesses that better meet the needs of local communities, as well as farmers.

What makes a local food system resilient? If the local food movement is our pathway toward a more sustainable future, and our future is marked with crises, then equipping small and mid-sized farm operators to become resilient is essential.  The more we know about how small and midsize farms adapt to production changes, supply chain disruptions, market restriction, labor shortages, and food safety requirements, the better we will able to provide this support. The findings from this research contribute directly to this knowledge base.

Research

Materials and methods:

Based on Yin’s (2009) multiple case study design, this project compares multiple cases within similar context to see if findings are replicated. To do this, the researcher triangulates qualitative research methods (Denizen, 1970) including: 1) document analysis, 2) demographic survey, and 3) semi-structured in-depth interviews. This project has been approved by the IRB at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to ensure that it follows appropriate human subjects research ethical requirements. 

Document Analysis

The researcher conducted document analysis to collect information about farm operations in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts. Documents were web-based, including farm business websites, online marketplaces, social media accounts, and newsletters. Documents also included articles in local newspapers or other media outlets (Bowen, 2009; Goldstein & Reiboldt, 2004).

Demographic Survey

A short demographic survey was used to capture basic information about research participants in advance of their interviews. Questions asked about contact information, gender identity, race, age, and farm business details (i.e. acres in production, gross income, staff, and market outlets). Research participants were asked to complete the survey in advance of their interview.

Semi-Structured In-Depth Interviews

The researcher used purposive sampling (Patton, 1990), inviting research participants deliberately based on their experience operating a small or midsize farm in Franklin, Hampshire, or Hampden county during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In collaboration with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), the researcher developed inclusion criteria to guide research participant recruitment. Inclusion criteria are: 1) Farmers with operations located in Hampden, Hampshire, or Franklin county, 2) Farmers with farm business gross income at $1 million or below (qualifying as small or mid size farms as defined by USDA), 3) Farmers that primarily grow speciality vegetable crops (as defined by USDA), 4) Farmers that have demonstrated successful adaptation or adaptive capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Successful adaptation is described as sustained economic value, social welfare, or environmental welfare (Tendall et al., 2015); adaptive capacity is described as the ability to convert existing resources into effective adaptation strategies (Kangogo, Dentoni, & Bijman, 2020)

In collaboration with CISA, the researcher developed a recruitment script and plan for inviting participants to engage in the project. CISA compiled a list of potential participants based on the inclusion criteria, which the researcher used to reach out to farmers directly via email or phone using the recruitment script. Interested participants were asked to complete the consent materials and demographic survey through an electronic link set up in Qualtrics, then set up an interview time. 

Nine interviews were completed and transcribed. Due to the ongoing pandemic, interviews were conducted via Zoom or phone. Interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. Interviews were recorded on the researcher’s MacBook Pro using QuickTime player software and Otter.ai.

Analysis

Documents, interview transcripts, and survey results were being analyzed using grounded theory and coding. The researcher used deductive sorting to establish broad themes associated with the data (Ryan & Bernard, 2003; Saldaña, 2013). She then used inductive sorting to open code data (Galman, 2013), narrow in on more specific themes, and develop a code book. The researcher coded the interview transcripts and analyzed the coded data through text searches, word frequencies, and co-occurring themes. The researcher triangulated interview findings with findings from surveys and documents.

All research participants gave written permission for their name to be used in reports and publications, as required by the UMass Amherst IRB.

Research results and discussion:

This research is based on case studies of nine farm businesses operating in Hampshire and Franklin counties of western Massachusetts, including businesses located in Westhampton, Northampton, Whately, Conway, Hatfield, Shelburne Falls, Granby, Sunderland, and Amherst. These nine farm businesses managed between 0.75 and 150 acres of land during the 2020 season, with an average of 29 acres in production, and a total of 260 acres in production. Workers employed on these nine farms ranged from one part-time seasonal employee to 45 full-time seasonal employees, including one farm with two full-time, year-round positions. Gross farm income of these farms during the 2020 season ranged between $25,000 and $999,999, represented as follows: $25,000 - $49,000 (1), $50,000 to $99,000 (3), $100,000 - $249,000 (1), $250,000 to $499,000 (2), $500,000 - $999,999 (2). These farms market their products through the following channels: direct-to-consumer, including farmers markets, farm stand, farm store, pick-your own, and CSA programs; direct-delivery, including restaurants and small retailers; and large wholesale buyers, including schools/colleges, workplaces, hospitals, institutions, distributors, aggregators, and large grocery stores.

For each of the nine farms included in this study, the researcher conducted an interview with a farm owner and/or operator. In one case, the researcher interviewed two co-owners together. Of the 10 farm owner and/or operators who participated in interviews, 5 identify as male and 5 identify as female. None of the participants identified as transgender. All participants identify as white, while one participant also identifies as Latinx and another also identifies as Jewish. Farmer participants range in age from 25 years old to over 60 years old. Four participants are over age 60, two participants are between the ages of 35 and 44, and three participants are between the ages of 25 and 34. For a review of the nine cases included in this study, see Table 1: Farm Participant Characteristics for the 2020 Growing Season.

Below is an initial summary of findings, which are still under development.

All nine farmer participants said that their revenues were higher in 2020 than in 2019, and generally higher than usual. This was especially true for growers who either had existing retail market outlets or pivoted to develop them quickly during the 2020 season. For example, Warner Farm reported that their CSA program almost doubled in membership between the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Dave’s Natural Garden reported an over 1500% increase in sales at their farm stand during the onset of the pandemic in 2020, including in the sale of plant starts, which soared as people were doing more home gardening. They also saw an increase in CSA membership in 2020. Good Bunch Farm said that their farmers markets sales increased between 10 and 20% during the 2020 season. Bardwell Farm said their farm stand did more business than ever before from March – July 2020 and their CSA program more than doubled in size from 30 members in 2019 to 65 members in 2020. Golonka Farm also experienced sales increases in 2020 at their farmstand, which is typically already busy during the summer months. In fact, several farmers expressed that they were unable to meet the demand for local produce in 2020 and that they wished they had grown more.

To meet the super-high demand for local produce in 2020, many farms had to pivot their diversified market outlets toward direct-to-consumer retail sales channels. With many restaurants closed or only offering take-out, most farmer participants said they made changes to their production and marketing plans to orient toward their farm stands, farm stores, CSA programs, and farmers markets. They said that customers expressed feeling safer shopping at these locations because they were smaller, and many offered curbside or outdoor pick up.

Some of the specific changes that farmers made to their production and marketing plans included: setting up online and/or phone ordering systems and curbside or outdoor pick up; adding retail staff and the ability to accept credit cards to previously self-serve farm stands; establishing new CSA programs, including a winter CSA; adding new CSA pick up sites, including a local site after previously delivering all CSA shares to the Boston area; the collaborative establishment of and participation in new aggregated local food home delivery programs such as Sunderland Farm Collaborative, Mass Food Delivery, and the Hilltown Mobile Market; shifting to winter-only production; changing crop offerings to limit products that are only successfully marketed to specific sales outlets (i.e. growing less fresh herbs and bulk tomatoes for restaurants) or that simply do not grow well on the farm’s soil; attending new farmers markets; opening new farm stands; and changing farm stand hours to earlier closure due to less commuter traffic. In some cases, farmers made significant changes to their business models during the first two years of the pandemic. For example, Diego A. Irizarry-Gerould of Song Sparrow Farm decided to stop farming and to sell his business after the 2020 season. Danya Teitelbaum of Queen’s Greens made the decision to transition from a year-round diversified vegetable farm to a winter-only greens operation open from April-November.

When talking about how they came to their respective decisions, Diego A. Irizarry-Gerould and Danya Teitelbaum shared perspectives that were echoed by other young farmer participants, including Anna Meyer of Hart Farm and Dan Greene of Good Bunch Farm. These farmers discussed seeking and creating opportunities for more balanced lifestyles with fewer work hours, better benefits, higher income levels, and less strain on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. These young farmer participants talked about the challenges of managing their farm businesses due to the extremely high demands on their time and energy. While they discussed very long hours, and for some, low incomes, being an ongoing issue that affected them before the pandemic, some said that these conditions worsened over the past two years. Many farmer participants reported having little to no time off during peak season, working from early morning hours until late at night, and generally earning a low income. Some said that the demands of their farm businesses interfered with maintaining healthy relationships with their families and friends, pursuing other interests such as graduate school and certificate programs, other interests outside of farming, and simply getting enough rest. Many farmers across age ranges said that they must work a second job during the off-season, or that they rely on the income from a partner’s off-farm job to earn a stable living. Young farmers also discussed concerns about their physical health, especially around wear and tear of their bodies, and questioned whether their bodies would be capable of farming into the future.  

As mentioned above, for Diego A. Irizarry-Gerould, these factors played a major role in his decision to stop farming. For Dany Teitelbaum, similar concerns played into her decision to change the business model of Queen’s Greens and stop operating year-round. For others, such as Warner Farm, these challenges have resulted in the decision to further diversify and grow the business to include multiple revenue-generating enterprises – a vegetable farm, a farm store, a pick-your-own fruit stand, and a corn maze – sustained by year-round employees.

Some farmers talked about the pandemic as an opening, or an opportunity, for change. Danya Teitelbaum said that the culture of constant change that took hold during the pandemic made it easier for her to consider trying a new business model. In this era of the pandemic, when restaurants and other businesses were opening and closing, changing hours and operations, it felt like a change to the farm business would be tolerated by customers. Danya emphasized that being rooted in the community with strong relationships to customers and other farms was also a critical element that helped her feel supported in making this decision.

Older farmers view these challenges differently. They discussed farming as a lifestyle that they had chosen, and which they had generally expected to keep them tethered to their farm business. Older farmers also discussed the ways that their businesses and lives benefitted by inheriting farmland, infrastructure, and equipment from family members, which helped them gain entry into the farming business and allowed them to minimize and manage their debt, thereby reducing their stress and improving their quality of life.

Across ages, farmer participants said that operating a farm business during the pandemic left them feeling stressed, exhausted, overworked, and burnt out. Farmers repeatedly discussed the extra hours they had to put into their jobs during the pandemic, particularly due to added health and safety tasks (i.e. purchasing hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves for workers, purchasing and installing plexiglass barriers in retail locations, developing and adhering to socially distant farmers market operations policies, re-tooling crop and marketing places, wiping and sanitizing surfaces and work spaces, etc.).

In addition, farmers have responsibilities within the local food system and economy that go above beyond operating their own businesses. For example, farmers at Intervale Farm, Hart Farm, and Good Bunch Farm not only sell their products at farmers markets, but also co-manage the markets they are a part of. These farmers discussed the challenges of their market manager roles during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. They reported that farmers markets were required to make many changes to adhere to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. This included designing and posting procedures and protocols for vendors, working with local Boards of Health to obtain permits, and then enforcing the new rules. Some of the protocols included limiting the number of people that could be in the market at a time, routing shoppers through the market in a line, wiping and sanitizing surfaces regularly, monitoring and enforcing mask usage by shoppers, and requiring vendors to select and bag products for customers. Designing and implementing those changes fell on the market managers, who had little information or guidance and often felt overwhelmed. Farmers said that CISA was helpful and supportive in this process – especially since they already had existing relationships with staff at CISA, who were quick to connect and eager to help. On the other hand, working with local Boards of Health was more difficult. Farmers said that they did not have strong relationships with the Boards of Health before the pandemic, which made it harder to connect with them and work together to get the markets operating safely.

During the 2020 season all farmer participants said that hiring a labor force to operate their farm was not difficult. But, by 2021, that changed drastically. All the farmer participants said that skilled, dependable labor is an essential component to successfully operating their businesses and that they struggled to hire workers for the 2021 season. Many of the participant farmers said they rely on migrant farm workers to operate their farms. Several farms work with the H2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program and said that the program works extremely well, making their search for farm workers much easier and ensuring that they have a dependable workforce each year. In addition, through this program, attention is paid to bringing the same workers back to the farm each year, which leads to strong and caring relationships between farm owners and their seasonal migrant staff. But, becoming enrolled in the program is perceived as complicated and requires that the farm offer housing to farm workers, which can be a barrier for some. Other farm participants said that migrant farm workers also come to the farm through informal networks that can be difficult to tap into, to make job offers. Still, many farmer participants stated that migrant farm workers are viewed as a highly skilled and valued labor workers that should be supported to work on local farms. This is especially true, farmer participants state, because the pool of local workers interested in farm work is small and inconsistent, primarily including high school and college students.  

In the 2021 season, almost all farmer participants said they struggled with recruiting and hiring enough people to effectively run their farms. They said that an added challenge was the transition to more direct-to-consumer sales, which requires additional labor and training to pack produce into retail packaging and to staff retail markets. Farmer participants also cited the demand for higher wages as a barrier to hiring a dependable labor force. Many farmer participants expressed that they view their farm workers to be indispensable to their operation and that they desire to pay their workers a livable wage. Yet, their margins are so thin that they struggle to raise wages and maintain a financially viable business. Still, many farmer participants said they raised their wages during the pandemic. Without an adequate labor force, farmers said that the extra work falls on them, contributing to exhaustion, stress, and burn out.  

Yet, as stated above, all nine of the farmer participants said that 2020 was one of the most financially successful years in memory. This was due in part to the grants and loans that were made available to them, which farmers said were incredibly supportive. Several farms, including Dave’s Natural Garden, Warner Farm, Bardwell Farm, and Song Sparrow Farm, applied for and received funding from the Payroll Protection Program, which allowed them to hire and retain workers. They said that this program worked well and not only helped them retain workers but also increase their wages. Farmer participants received funding from a wide range of additional sources during the pandemic. For example, Dave’s Natural Garden received a grant from USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) to install a new high tunnel; Warner Farm received a Food Security Infrastructure grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) to construct a new packing shed and purchase a new box truck; Bardwell Farm received a loan through CISA’s Emergency Farm Fund; Hart Farm, Good Bunch Farm, Bardwell Farm, Song Sparrow Farm, and Intervale Farm received funds through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA); and Intervale Farm received funds through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. Farmer participants also said they felt supported by community-based organizations including CISA, Hilltown Community Development, and Grow Food Northampton, as well as MDAR.

Farmers that added new infrastructure to their farms during the pandemic, including Warner Farm and Intervale Farm, through support from various grant programs mentioned above, shared that supply chain issues created major delays in construction. They also experienced increased costs that meant paying out of pocket for projects that were intended to be funded through grants or simply delaying construction. Both farmers at Warner Farm and Intervale Farm said that flexible grantors were critically important to navigating these supply chain and cost increase challenges, allowing them to complete the projects with extra time.

While sales in 2020 were higher than usual, most farmer participants said that they saw a decrease in sales in 2021. With stores, businesses, and institutions re-opening, many people returned to business-as-usual, despite the ongoing infections from COVID-19 sweeping the nation. This meant that many people returned to eating out at restaurants and shopping at supermarkets. But, farmer participants said that in some ways they saw sustained interest in shopping locally. For example, Anna Meyer said that 2020 brought in many new customers who had never heard of Hart Farm before, and that some new customers have been retained.

Yet, farmers are also frustrated by the changing habits of customers, especially after they adapted their businesses and worked extra hours to support the food security of the region during 2020. Meghan Hastings of Dave’s Natural Garden discussed the difficult reality that customers compare prices of locally grown produce with prices of produce at the supermarket, despite major differences in growing practices, labor costs, and quality.

In 2021, some farms saw their restaurant customers return, which they welcomed. Dan Greene of Good Bunch Farm said that sales to restaurants in 2021 exceeded sales in 2019, which he thought could be due to ongoing supply chain issues that make larger distributors less reliable, as well as rising prices that followed the pandemic, which have added more flexibility for restaurateurs to increase their purchasing budgets. He also suggested that both restaurant owners and customers have a renewed appreciation for local products after the pandemic food shortages. For farms that don’t sell to restaurants, like Golonka Farm, the re-opening of restaurants resulted in a decrease in sales at their farmstand.

When reflecting on their experiences during the 2020 and 2021 seasons, farmer participants were asked about how they understand resilience in relation to their farm business. Several themes emerged as important elements of how farmers make meaning of this buzzword.

Some farmers understand diversity as fundamental for resilience – a small-scale farm is more successful with a diversity of products, a variety of land types, and a mix of market outlets. Mike Wissemann said that growing a range of fruits and vegetables helps Warner Farm stay economically viable when any particular crop has a poor yield. In addition, he said that growing on a variety of cropland types ensures that some crops produce regardless of the weather.  Harrison Bardwell of Bardwell Farm shared this sentiment, expressing that diversification of products and sales channels means always having a backup plan when plans change.

For other farmers, social connections and relationships are a critical aspect of resilience. Danya Teitelbaum said that relationships with other farmers have allowed for creative problem-solving through collaboration (i.e. the development of Mass Food Delivery and Sunderland Farm Collaborative during the pandemic) to get local food to people where they are able to access it – at sites near their homes or directly delivered to their doorstep. In addition, strong and trusting relationships between farmers and buyers allows for direct communication during crises, like the pandemic, which creates opportunities for emergent adaptation that ultimately better meets the needs of both the farmer and the buyer.

Farmer participants also see adaptive capacity as essential to farming – the ability and willingness to change based on external conditions. Farmers at Hart Farm, Dave’s Natural Garden, Queen’s Greens, and Warner Farm said that resilience is being open to changing plans based on new information and intentionally developing systems that are adaptive. They emphasized that learning by paying attention to what works (and what does not) from year to year is important to that process, but so is the ability to give up control around elements that cannot be controlled, like the weather, or a public health crisis. Instead, maintaining a business that is right-sized and can pivot when needed is essential.

In some sense, farmers said, resilience is a frame of mind. Mike Wissemann of Warner Farm and Jim Golonka of Golonka Farm said that resilience is about optimism and motivation to keep going year after year, regardless of how the previous season went. Mike Wissemann added that farming is a lifestyle that requires faith to keep going each year, not knowing what the future will hold, yet persisting. Farmer participants emphasized that this can be difficult when the weather is increasingly erratic due to climate change, inputs are increasingly expensive and need to be purchased many months in advance of sales, and markets and labor forces change without notice.

All farmer participants mentioned the necessity of material stability – that their business earn sufficient revenue to cover costs, pay workers, and provide their family a livable income. In addition, physical health, mental, and emotional health are critical aspects of resilience – without these elements, the farm business cannot be sustained.

All farmer participants talked about their commitments to feeding the local community, stating that this was the reason they maintained and ramped up operations early on in the pandemic. While their own livelihoods rely on the sales of their products, all of the farmers I spoke to also emphasized the weight of responsibility that they feel to ensure their communities have access to healthy locally produced food. Farmer participants said that they witnessed the panic amongst community members during the pandemic, as well as the food shortages that impacted supermarkets and big box stores during this time, and were compelled to ensure they produced local food for their communities. The major increases in sales during the 2020 season demonstrates that community members also considered local farms incredibly important for feeding their families in 2020. For farmers, this responsibility to the community included not only those who could afford to purchase local food at full price, but also those who use the SNAP program, area food pantries, or other mutual aid efforts. Many of the farmer participants said they accept SNAP, HIP, and food access coupons for senior citizens, and they saw increased usage of all during the pandemic.

In addition, during the 2020 season Hart Farm started a CSA option where people could donate money to purchase a farm share for someone who couldn’t otherwise afford it, making the CSA program accessible to a wider range of people, especially those with lower incomes. Hart Farm also had an increase in SNAP/HIP CSA shares during the pandemic, with these shares now accounting for about one-third of all shares. Anna Meyer of Hart Farm was also involved in setting up and managing a community fridge in Shelburne Falls where anyone can drop off or pick up fresh food. This mutual aid effort was a successful effort for getting fresh food to people who needed it during the past several years. Bardwell Farm also began delivering more CSA shares outside the immediate community of Hatfield, where the farm is located, to communities where local food is less accessible.  

Table 1: Farm Participant Characteristics for the 2020 Growing Season

Farm Name

Location

Participant

Production Acreage

Farm Size*

Staffing**

Market Outlets

Intervale Farm

Westhampton

Maureen Dempsey,

Co-owner/operator

10-12

Small

2 full time/seasonal; 1-2 part-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer; Direct delivery

Song Sparrow Farm

Northampton

Diego A. Irizarry-Gerould, Owner/operator

0.75

Small

1 part-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer; Direct delivery

Golonka Farm

Whately

Jim and Jan Golonka,

Co-owners/operators

23

Mid-size

9 full-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer

Hart Farm

Conway

Anna Meyer, Owner/operator

2

Small

1 part-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer; Direct delivery

Bardwell Farm

Hatfield

Harrison Bardwell, Owner/operator

25

Mid-size

12 full-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer; Direct delivery; Large wholesale

Good Bunch Farm

Shelburne Falls

Daniel Greene, Owner/operator

4

Small

1 part-time

Direct-to-consumer; Direct delivery

Dave’s Natural Garden

Granby

Meghan Hastings, Operator

7.5

Small

7 full-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer

Warner Farm

Sunderland

Michael Wissemann, Owner/Operator

150

Mid-size

2 full time/year-round; 45 full-time/seasonal

Direct-to-consumer; Direct delivery; Large wholesale

Queen’s Greens

Amherst

Danya Teitelbaum,

Co-owner/operator

35

Mid-size

9 full-time/seasonal

Direct delivery; Large wholesale

Research conclusions:

This research project is still in progress therefore conclusions are not yet developed.

Initial findings suggest that during the pandemic farmer participants have demonstrated dynamic and complex adaptive capacity, which they have employed effectively to adapt their farm businesses toward their goals. In other words, farmer participants have demonstrated resilience, as it is increasingly understood as not a long-term outcome that we aim to achieve, but instead a set of capacities or abilities that enable a long-term outcome of interest. With this characterization of resilience in mind, this research encourages us to consider what long-term outcomes of interest we hold farmers accountable to. It is typically presumed by researchers that the long-term outcomes of interest for farm viability include farm business viability, growth, and profitability, community food security, or public health. Alternatively, this research encourages us to consider that the outcomes of interest, or goals, for farmers themselves, are nuanced and varied, and that perhaps instead of centering business or even the community outcomes, we must prioritize the health and well-being of farmers and the land they steward.

These initial findings are supported by Darnhofer (2016) who suggests that resilience is a process of “complex relations, re-enacted and performed over and over again – contingent, contradictory, unfinished, entangled ongoing production of openings and closings” (117). She argues that resilience is an “emergent result of ever changing patterns of relations, relations that are material, social, cultural.” (Darnhofer, 2016, 118). In this way, measuring and understanding adaptative capacity and resilience becomes less of an empirical investigation, and more a process of unfolding stories based on local, temporal, and place-based experiences. This understanding of adaptation and resilience encourages dynamic, emergent frameworks and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating strategies for food system futures, which are rooted first and foremost in the wellbeing of those who are impacted by the food system, including farmers and food system workers.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a surge of inquiry into food systems resilience, the literature in this particular area is nascent. Increasingly, scholar-activists call on the people most impacted by the crises at hand to drive the conversation around what is needed to create a better future. MacKinnon and Derickson (2012) argue that pathways toward resilience are often defined by state agencies and expert knowledge, providing top-down guidance that tends of favor politics and big business over participatory approaches or community/farmer expertise. They argue that these top-down approaches generally favor the corporate food regime over alternative food systems rooted in regenerative or agroecological food systems (Darnhofer, 2016; MacKinnon & Derickson, 2012; Leach et al., 2012; Levidow, 2015). This begs the question, if resilience is understood as the ability to bounce forward, then who decides what that future looks like? And whose interests are prioritized in that future? While neoliberal rhetoric tells is “there is no alternative,” farmers responses to COVID-19 demonstrate creative approaches and new forms of food business that are rooted in their own values, in humanity, and in ecological health. As Walker (2004) inquires, “the resilience of what to what?” These are the questions left to explore through this project and future research endeavors.

Participation Summary
9 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

9 Consultations

Participation Summary:

9 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

In the final phase of this project research findings from this research will be developed specifically for farmers and community members. The researcher will collaborate with CISA to develop findings into a style appropriate and useful for these audiences, which may include a web or print based infographic, one-pager, interactive website, pamphlet, audio recording, in-person presentation, or other multimodal communications tool. In addition, the researcher will present findings at farmer meetings and events, including at least one presentation where research participants are explicitly invited.

As the Connecticut River Valley’s primary farmer support and community-oriented “buy-local” organization, CISA has an extensive outreach network, which will be leveraged to disseminate researcher findings associated with this project. CISA’s direct network includes 412 dues-paying farm and food business members, including 265 farms, 64 restaurants, 43 retailers, 24 institutions, and 16 specialty producers who they reach with monthly newsletters and email blasts. In addition, the organization reaches approximately 6,000 people who are interested in local agriculture through listservs, online listings, email newsletters, traditional radio and print announcements, word of mouth, and direct outreach. These networks include other organizations that serve farmers in Massachusetts, including the state and federal agencies, statewide farm associations, and those organization that provide services to start-up, immigrant, and urban farmers. This deeply rooted network will ensure that the findings from this research project reach a broad base of farmers and community members, as well as program leaders, policy makers, and government agencies. In addition, the researcher will coordinate with the UMass Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment and UMass Extension to disseminate findings through existing professional and academic networks.
The purpose of this outreach strategy is to ensure that this research provides food systems leaders and farmers with tangible, specific, and actionable goals for building a stronger and more resilient local food system.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmers will benefit from this research by better understanding their own experiences and the experiences of their peers during this period of crisis. Learning about how farmers have adapted through COVID-19 offers rich fodder for farmers as they consider how to continually adapt and transform themselves and their businesses. In addition, the fields of food system and climate change planning lack tools for understanding and evaluating resilience, especially through a social justice lens that centers those most impacted by oppressive systems such as the corporate food regime. Through an analysis of how farmers adapted through the pandemic, this study highlights that farmers have agency to co-create food system futures that center their own needs alongside environmental sustainability and community food security. And, that farmers must be supported by our governmental agencies and community based organizations to be able to do so. These frameworks are essential for reaching the sustainable and equitable food systems we envision for the future.

Knowledge Gained:

During this project the graduate student researcher delved into the literature on resilience, ranging from household resilience to farm business resilience, and beyond. This project overlaps with another research project the researcher is working on that investigates changes to food provisioning strategies at the household level during the pandemic. Together these two studies provide an understanding of the pandemic’s impact on the food system from both the farmer and consumer perspective.

Since this project started in 2020, the graduate student researcher has taken on a full-time position as Special Projects Coordinator at Healthy Hampshire/Collaborative for Educational Services. She is engaged in the development of the Hampshire County Food Policy Council, a project that builds the capacity of community members to effect policy, systems, and environmental change in order to build a resilient community-owned regional food system where all people are empowered to live more joyful and gratifying lives through access to affordable, healthy, locally grown food of their choice. She has withdrawn from her PhD program and will not pursue scholarly work at the PhD level, but will continue to conduct community engaged research and write about the findings. The researcher will also collaborate with her advisors to identify another graduate student interested in working with the data that was collected through this project to continue analysis and potentially publish a scholarly article.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.