Seedlings.
Seedlings.

The irony is not lost on Jamie Jones.

His grandfather, the fourth generation to run what is now Jones Family Farms in Shelton, was born in October 1918 at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic.

“He went through Great Depression and World War II,” Jones said. “It’s times like these that those are lessons that are important.”

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Jones and the rest of Connecticut’s agricultural community are in the fight of their lives to preserve their livelihoods in addition to their personal health.

Full-time farm tending is barely weeks away. Seedlings are growing, supplies are ordered and paid for, consumers have shelled out money for product they will receive later in the growing season. With restaurants and other food operations closed, it’s all against a backdrop of uncertainty about how distribution can be accomplished and who would buy Connecticut-grown food.

For the state’s blockbuster greenhouse industry, which is 60% of the state’s $4 billion/21,000-employee agriculture industry, the full crisis is here now.

“It’s bagged; it’s tagged and it’s on trucks,” said Sue Pronovost, executive director of the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association.

It’s high season for these folks, who ship 60% of that output out of state to grocery stores, chain stores and other garden centers that sell bedding plants, shrubs and just about anything else people may want to plant in their gardens. They also count on Easter and then Mother’s Day as big money-makers.

“We’re in the process of determining what is and is not happening,” Pronovost said. “We can’t get a straight answer from the big box stores.”

Locally she said there’s been a “tidal wave” of cancellations from restaurants now closed, churches and organizations like volunteer fire departments that might otherwise hold plant sale fundraisers. But even if these things were open: “My guess is we’re looking at ‘Can I buy an Easter plant – or another roll of toilet paper?’”

Farmers markets are ‘essential’

The food farming community is also scrambling despite providing the most essential of essential services. Farmers – many of whom grow year round – are facing distribution hurdles now that may only intensify when high season hits in couple of months.

The state has some 5,500 farms — average size 70 acres, which is very small by U.S. farm standards. Many mainly serve localized markets that are getting walloped by the virus that has reduced restaurant and education institution sales to near zero.

“Buy local except when there is a pandemic, then go to the grocery store, is not what we want.”

Chris Pacheco, owner of Seacoast Mushrooms in Mystic, with 90% of his business in restaurant sales, was all but wiped out. “I’ve thrown away about 1,200 pounds of food,” he said.

He and others shifted the battle lines to farm market and farmers markets, which initially shut down in the wake of Gov. Ned Lamont’s restaurant closing order.  There are only a handful of farmers markets this time year, but they balloon up to around 125 most summers, with consumers poking hands in bins of fruits and veggies, eating samples, and crowds that are nothing close to social distance standards. Many farms have on-site stores and/or community supported agriculture – CSA – programs, both of which mean people prowling around stores and fields. That’s not to mention popular pick-your own operations, especially for fruit crops.

Frustrated with a balky initial response from the state Department of Agriculture – as were other growers, Pacheco sent a letter to the department arguing that farmers markets should be classified the same as grocery stores.

“Our farmers markets are far better than any grocery store option when it comes to fresh produce, fresh air, social distancing and cleanliness of product. With farmers markets being closed or making purchasing/delivery transactions cumbersome or more restrictive than grocery stores, regression will occur and we could lose local agriculture businesses in the process,” he wrote.

Sue Olson of Fairfield picks up an order at Sport Hill Farm market in Easton. The farm market is normally closed this time of year, but opened with a pre-order, timed-pickup systems after COVID-19 hit. Sport Hill Farm

“We need the community and the community needs us and now more so than ever, we need DoAg to have a huge voice in how to handle local food sourcing in this pandemic. We have been building up to it for years with eat local, buy local and now we really need to show why it matters. Buy local except when there is a pandemic, then go to the grocery store, is not what we want. This is why we grow food so people can get it when they really need it.”

The classification of farmers markets as grocery stores came last week through an executive order. But without any specific parameters as other market systems such as in New York City have done. Since then, Lamont has gone on to classify the state’s agriculture industry as an essential service.

The department issued broad best practices information – some of it supplied by the University of Connecticut Extension service, but most cobbled together from other states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not Connecticut-specific.

Advice included reinforcement of existing regulations and reminders about handwashing and sanitizing, disinfecting methods, use of gloves, and the need to post signs with such information in Spanish as well as English.

“There are a lot of questions and not a lot of good answers,” said Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt who also emphasized that farmers were being given information about loans and other financial services. “We’re trying to be a clearing house for good answers. Our goal is to make sure we get the best information out to farmers so they can implement them as closely as possible.”

Bonnie Burr, department head and assistant director for extension said there are plenty of health and safety regulations on the books including the federal Food Safety and Modernization Act passed during the Obama administration.

“We do need to up our game and make sure consumers understand — here are some ways you can reduce your risk,” she said.

Star Light Gardens provides pre-ordered, bagged greens at the reopened New Haven Farmers Market, now designed to eliminate nearly all social contact. CitySeed

The department is also providing a list of of operating farmers markets and farm stands, but it’s been largely left to individual farms and farmers market systems to find their ways through. Systems that protect farmers and customers from contamination by COVID-19 are being invented farm-by-farm and market-by-market. Their roles as educational tools are largely being jettisoned as farmers and market masters look to eliminate any potential workers or customers who could spread disease, jeopardizing both peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

The New Haven farmers market did reopen on Saturday using a pre-order, pre-payment system in which people never had to leave their cars. Timed slots limited the market to about 120 shoppers and about 95 snaked through – a far cry from the usual socializing, food sampling, music and cooking demonstrations.

Pacheco, the mushroom grower, said he felt like he got half his wish with the market, though it really didn’t run like a grocery store. Like other farmers, he is hustling to partner with farms and other stores that are open. He found a restaurant group providing online menus.

“Everybody gets mushrooms,” he only half-joked. “We’re trying to stay alive.”

Ingenuity on display

Dina Brewster is feeling the pandemic pressure from two sides. One as owner of her grandfather’s farm, The Hickories, in Ridgefield with 45 certified organic acres of vegetables, fruit, cut flowers and a variety of animals.

But she also is executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. She said the calls have been coming in: “What to do I do; what do I do; what do I do?”

“The potential is here to really activate our food system as the component of our national security that it’s always been,” she said. “What we need to do is shorten the chain of food handlers from when that food is created to when it goes to your mouth.”

The state’s local farms, she and others said, already do that. At a grocery store, that food has been on trucks, in warehouses and through multiple handlers. “Every one of those is a cough,” she said. “A farmers market should be a point of confidence.”

And she said she was heartened to see how flexible and innovative the state’s farmers already were in dealing with the situation. “We are a scrappy people.”

Farming operations large and small have been kicking hastily conceived Plan B’s into gear. Farmers are pooling resources to sell at single locations. Pre-order and non-contaminating access systems have been invented.

At the Hickories that’s meant transitioning the farm store to online sales only. People pull in, give their name, and their order is placed on a table to be picked up after the farm worker moves away.

At Waldingfield Farm, 20 acres of mainly certified organic vegetables in Washington, co-owner Patrick Horan said produce is still going to the New York City farmers markets. But when the New Haven market closed and then scaled back, the farm opened its on-site barn store two-and-a-half months early instead. He was bringing in product from other farmers looking for outlets to replace ones they’d lost.

“If there was a time to think about a local source, this is a good time,” Horan said. His barn will limit how many customers can come in at a time. Farm workers will handle all the food with gloves and tongs. Surfaces will be wiped down regularly and generally he’ll adhere to standards set by food industry.

“In this climate insuring that farmers keep on farming is part of the mission right now for the short term,” he said.

At tiny Star Light Gardens, less than three acres in Durham now in its 21st year, owner David Zemelsky was planting for full summer production but was pretty blunt about the situation. “I can’t think of a farm that’s not in a precarious position,” he said. “In reality I am thinking so much less about six months ahead than trying to make what we have work.”  That means directing people to his honor system farm stand and participating in the reorganized New Haven market, which he said was good for business, but strange without socializing.

In a snowstorm, he said recalling a big one that collapsed his plastic growing structures: “To fix that all you needed was money. You didn’t need to research a new vaccine.”

In Easton, not far from the epicenter of Connecticut’s coronavirus outbreak in Westport, Patti Popp decided to open her Sport Hill Farm market, usually closed this time of year. She posted to the private Facebook group –Moms of Easton — and is using a pre-order system and timed pickups to provide them with her products and from others including salad greens from Gilberties, the Easton-based herb and greens-growing operation that took a major hit from its lost restaurant business.

“I’m trying to help sustain the local economy,” she said in between pickups. “We’re all small family farms. We work with each other, back up each other up and between everybody we can at least have a solid food economy.”

Mountain Dairy announces home delivery service in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The dairy lost about half its business when universities and restaurants shut down.

She figures she still has a couple of months to figure out the rest of growing season – if she’ll need to do her regular hiring to help with Sport Hill’s 30 acres and how to handle the market if virus contamination continues to be a major issue.

“I will still grow food,” she said. “How I’ll be able to distribute food – I don’t know.”

Craig Stearns, president and general manager of Mountain Dairy in Storrs and the ninth generation in his family to own the farm, took a back-to-the-future approach to that distribution conundrum: home delivery.

The market for the milk from his 1,000 cows instantly dropped by half when the universities, restaurants and coffee shops in the state shut down.

Stearns said panic buying initially picked up some of the slack. “I’m not sure how long term,” he said. So last week the company reinstituted home delivery and is partnering with Hosmer Mountain Bottling Co. of Willimantic to also deliver birch and root beers and seltzer. He had four routes by the end of the week.

At Bishop’s Orchard in Guilford, fifth generation owner Keith Bishop and his daughter rolled out a long planned online order system for the farm market sooner than anticipated when the coronavirus situation exploded. Customers have to pick it up, but staff puts together the order.

Labor problems

But the farm and market face major hurdles navigating the unknowns of the pandemic. Among the biggest – the massive pick-your-own operation that is a major income stream and money saver: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, pears, peaches and more.

To keep customers hands off the fruit, Bishop would have to hire additional labor. And even his regular labor is now problematic. Like farms elsewhere in Connecticut and across the nation, he hires migrant labor using the H-2A visa program. But that’s been cut off from Mexico by the Trump administration due to the pandemic. Bishop doesn’t even know if he’ll get the five workers he requested.

It’s a financial balancing act, but with unknown factors. “What’s cash flow going to be? Are we going to get sucked out of cash flow?” he asked rhetorically as the clock neared midnight, his first free moment. “What do you invest the most in so down the road – in fall season – you have biggest bang.”

That’s when kids swarm the fields for pumpkins – a much bigger return than some of the summer vegetables — so maybe skip them.

“What do we need to do to protect that going ahead?” he asked. “I hope we don’t have to shut down one side to save the other side.”

Jones of Jones Farms is also still thinking through how to proceed. The farm has a vineyard and wine-making operation. The tasting room had just opened for the season. It’s now closed, though bottles of wine are still available. Kitchen classes for March and April are canceled. All money is refunded.

Pick-your-own: 15 acres of strawberries, 10 acres of blueberries, 25 acres of pumpkins and squash, pose a problem. But the biggest one is the farm’s main business – 200 acres of cut-your-own Christmas trees. Seemingly long-off, but in April Jones is supposed to transplant more than 10,000 baby ones. And the vineyard always needs tending to.

“I don’t know how we’ll do it. It won’t be business as usual,” he said.

And then he tells the story of seeing a sale on hand sanitizer in January. That was before coronavirus was barely known. So, he bought a year’s supply.

“We’ve probably gone through half of it,” he said ruefully. “It was just stupid luck.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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