When you’re in farming, being resourceful comes with the territory. And for many in this line of work, COVID-19 has put that resourcefulness to the test.
But as area operations adapt to new public-health and economic realities, they’re finding the appetite for locally produced food during a pandemic is strong.
From carry-out meals and homemade dishes to community-supported agriculture shares, Monadnock Region farms are trying to keep up with a demand many say took them by surprise.
“Farm store sales increased dramatically earning half of our typical annual revenue in a month,” Julie Davenson, executive director of Stonewall Farm in Keene, wrote in an email Monday. “It was the silver lining of this pandemic, exposing the vulnerabilities in our broken national food system.”
A N.H. Business Review article from April examined how the outbreak’s impact on national and international food supply chains, among other disruptions it has caused, resulted in more people seeking out locally produced foods, whether from the farm or the sea.
In Troy, The Inn at East Hill Farm offered “take-away” food for the past few months to help fill the void of having to close to overnight guests in mid-March. Providing lodging, activities and meals to guests is a huge part of the business.
Jennifer Adams, an owner of the farm, said the response to the to-go meals and baked goods was strong, not only from Troy residents but also from people living in the neighboring communities of Fitzwilliam, Rindge, Peterborough and Keene.
The family-style dinners were made to serve two, four or six people, she said, and the farm averaged 35 to 40 meal orders each time.
With the inn planning to reopen to overnight guests Friday, the farm wrapped up take-away service this past week, according to Adams. However, she said, they plan to offer “pop-up” meals in the future, possibly in the fall.
While the initiative was something to keep staff busy, Adams described it as more of an effort to do something good for the community, and share the foods they have on their menu.
“We thought it would be a nice way to keep in touch locally because most of our business doesn’t come locally, but comes from out of state,” she explained. “We also thought it was a nice way for people to know we have delicious foods and things to offer that would give them other options, as Troy doesn’t have a lot of takeout.”
Like The Inn at East Hill Farm, Stonewall Farm in Keene has been offering meals to go.
Since the pandemic started, Davenson said, the farm store has expanded its local food offerings and hours, including adding products from other farms such as Mayfair Farm in Harrisville, Old Bridge Farm in Swanzey and Hungry Bear Farm in Wilton.
In addition, the farm store now has take-home meals and prepared foods for purchase from restaurants including Machina Arts in Keene, The Restaurant at Burdicks in Walpole, Shree’s Kitchen in Keene and Dosa Kitchen in Brattleboro.
The farm has also added an online farm store and curbside pickup, ready within the hour of the order being placed, she said.
In an effort to meet demand, Stonewall Farm has been able to increase the amount of crops it grows, as the pandemic came at the beginning of the growing season, according to Davenson. However, scaling up dairy or livestock production instantly isn’t easy, she added.
“I hope people realize if they want local food security they need to support local farms year round, not just when there is a pandemic,” she said in her email.
But a rise in revenue from its retail sales doesn’t mean the farm is going to have a good year financially.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the farm’s events, which are its major revenue source, Davenson explained, and the farm has been operating with a significantly smaller staff.
“While farm sales have increased, the margin isn’t high enough to cover the full operating expenses for the non-profit organization. Dairy has been especially hard hit,” she said.
At Echo Farm Puddings in Hinsdale, pandemic-related challenges in distributing its products to grocery stores made for a tough March, co-owner Beth Hodge said. The business was able to pivot a bit and put more emphasis on offering its puddings at 10 or so farm stands it was already working with, she said. While some of those stands are local, the vast majority are in other parts of the state and Massachusetts, she said.
Sales increased, and as Hodge and the farm staff worked to meet demand, they decided to have some fun — they developed a line of pandemic puddings. Those puddings, which are flavors Echo Pudding used to make before retiring them, are being offered exclusively at the farm stands.
Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from the sales of the puddings will be donated to the N.H. Food Bank, according to Hodge.
“It’s something different for us to do. It not only moves product, but we’re doing something to give back and helping the farm stands purchasing from us,” she said.
Of the returning flavors — coconut, peanut butter fudge and lemon — lemon proved the most challenging to re-establish.
“The lemon was something we did 25 years ago when we first started, and we weren’t able to get some of the ingredients we used to use. We pretty much had to start from scratch with it,” she said.
Finances for April and May ended up being better than they could have been during the pandemic, and the business received a federal payroll protection program loan, as well as some funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help with the dairy farm side of the business, Hodge said. The majority of the milk produced on the farm is sold into the commercial market, and about 20 percent is used to make pudding, she said.
“Going forward we have been sort of learning the lessons of this. For one thing, we can’t rely anymore on a short-term turnaround for ingredients we’re ordering.”
The farm has also been selling more larger containers of pudding than it did before the pandemic.
“More people are home, and there is just not the need for the same level of convenience,” she explained. “Pudding is a comfort food, and initially people wanted those things that made them feel good, and that definitely has had a impact.”
Jenny Wooster, who owns Picadilly Farm in Winchester with her husband, Bruce, said their community-supported agriculture business sold out of shares for the season six weeks earlier than it usually does, and that was even after they had increased the available shares by about 10 percent. That amounted to about 475 shares locally and approximately another 260 shares to people living in the Boston area, she said by phone Monday.
“There has definitely been a higher demand this year,” she said. “We’re usually selling shares right up until we open. We sold out in early May and have been working from a wait list.”
However, the loss of business from area restaurants and food co-operatives, along with an increase in expenses to meet federal and state pandemic guidelines, has Wooster concerned the farm may not be as profitable as it would be in a normal year.
“We’ll see what happens. I’ve planted some extra carrots and parsnips that we could sell on the back end of the year for a little more income to cover some of those extra expenses.”
Pete’s Stand, a mainstay farm stand on Route 12 in Walpole, opened for the season on June 11, and like the Woosters, its owners are concerned about expenses associated with pandemic life. But they, too, say they have seen an increase in customer support.
In order to have revenue available to start the season, the farm has a pre-buy program. Customers can purchase gift certificates ahead of time and get bonus cash to use when they buy from the stand later in the year, Teresa Janiszyn, who owns the business with her husband, Pete, said by phone Monday.
Usually they make about $5,000 to $6,000 through those sales, but this year they made almost double that, she said.
“I feel really fortunate that early on in the season things didn’t feel very different for us. We were working mainly in a family unit, and we were still able to work comfortably,” she said. “Now that the stand is open, we’re pre-packing a lot of things, and we’re sanitizing and washing more than we ever did before.”
The farm sells its own vegetables at the stand and fruit it buys from local farms. It’s also adding refrigerator and freezer space, she said, as they plan to sell locally produced milk, cheese and meats.
The stand was renovated this year, but it may need an addition to keep up with customer demand while still accommodating the social distancing requirement of six feet between people, according to Janiszyn.
“We’re learning. This is all new,” she said. “I think the key is to maintain business and just be as flexible as possible. That’s all we can do.”
More than 200 people marched through downtown Keene Friday evening, demanding structural changes to dismantle systemic racism and celebrating Juneteenth, the commemoration of the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. learned of their liberation.
The march, held in conjunction with hundreds of others around the country, began shortly after 4 p.m. in the Commercial Street public parking lot, where A’Ja Hall, a 37-year-old black woman from Troy, welcomed the crowd. Hall, who later spoke at the rally in Patricia T. Russell Park that followed the march, said she spoke up because Americans are too comfortable with racism.
“I’m here to tell people how it is,” Hall said in an interview before the march. “We’re fed up. This is not something that’s new. This is not something that’s okay. This is history repeating itself, and no longer will it repeat itself.”
Mollash Campbell, a 23-year-old black woman who lives in Derry, also spoke before the march, and told the crowd that the movement they have joined defies politics.
“This movement has been used so that we can vote Democrat or Republican, and it makes me mad because black lives are more than politics,” Campbell said. “ ... We’re here to celebrate the freedom of black Americans. And sometimes I think we’re not even free in the mind. They tell us we’re free, but it doesn’t feel like we’re free. So we’re here.”
Following these opening remarks, the march continued south on Main Street, where Keene police cruisers temporarily blocked traffic as the crowd stretched for several blocks and chanted “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace.”
During the march, Fronsy Thurman said she brought her 8-year-old son Leander from Brattleboro to the event to show him the hope of the growing movement for racial justice.
“And because it’s Juneteenth,” Leander chimed in.
“This is hopeful to me, because if we had had this many white people showing up in Ferguson, I think we’d be in a very different place right now,” said Thurman, 46, who added that she has been bringing her son to protests since he was about a year old.
From Main Street, the march turned east on Water Street, and south onto Carpenter Street to the park, where the mostly white crowd dispersed to find shade from the hot sun and listen to a series of speakers who addressed them from a stage set up on the western end of the park.
Keene Mayor George Hansel spoke first, and read an official proclamation declaring Friday Juneteenth in Keene, the first official recognition of the holiday in the city. New Hampshire first declared Juneteenth a state holiday last year. Hansel presented the proclamation to Katie Pomper, a writer and lifelong Keene resident, who shared stories of black history in New Hampshire, and the history of Juneteenth.
The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, bringing with them news that the Civil War was over and all enslaved were people were free. This day came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“On that day, freed men and women rejoiced with song, food and prayer to celebrate their freedom, dubbing the day Juneteenth,” Pomper said. “Since then, we celebrate the day, June 19, that they removed the chains. And although we rejoice, we know today, like they did then, that the work is not done because still, we are not equal and therefore we are not free.”
This work, said Jonah Wheeler, a rising senior at ConVal Regional High School, includes having difficult conversations with people who show racist behaviors.
“People are more scared of being called a racist than actually being racist,” Wheeler said. “That mentality in others is what keeps us in this constant loop of inaction. It’s part of the reason we are still here in the streets demanding change centuries after the fight began.”
Wheeler also listed organizers’ demands for substantive changes to further the goal of racial justice. These include removing school resource officers from public school, ending cash bail, reallocating funds from police to social services and creating a citizen police review board with the power to review all complaints against law enforcement.
He also encouraged people to contact their public school administrators and school boards to demand that black history be taught year-round, and not just during black history month in February.
These changes will take time and effort to enact, Wheeler said, but he remains hopeful.
“Today we are in a special moment,” he said. “We have an unprecedented amount of momentum, and the majority of the public behind the principles of our cause. If we continue this push for change, there is no stopping us, and I will not stop until there is justice for all.
“My optimism towards that goal has grown immensely,” he continued, “from coming, marching here today and seeing firsthand the enthusiasm around the fight that will bring us to a better future.”
In March, Rakia Akter was confronted with a serious parenting problem. As the coronavirus pandemic grew worse, schools in Buffalo, N.Y., where she lives, were shutting down in-person classes and shifting entirely to online, distance learning. With her husband earning $30,000 a year working for FedEx while she stayed at home raising their children, money was tight. They couldn’t afford to pay for home Internet. How, she wondered, would their 9-year-old and 7-year-old daughters be able to keep up with their classmates?
Eventually, Akter heard that the cable giant Charter Communications was giving away free Internet access to help families in need during the lockdown. Akter signed up and, for the moment, her family’s remote-learning crisis was averted.
But then, last month, the 60-day free period ran out. Facing a monthly bill that would jump to $64, Akter reluctantly canceled the service. “People say, ‘Internet is just $60 a month,’ but we’ve had to cut so many corners just to have what we have,” said Akter, who is 27 and has three kids. “That’s food for a week for us.”
Thousands of people in communities across the country are about to grapple with a similar dilemma. Earlier this year, to help students and teachers finish the disrupted school year online, Charter, Comcast, AT&T and others began providing free Internet. They also pledged not to cut off service or charge late fees to customers struggling financially because of the pandemic.
Now, several of those programs are set to end in the coming weeks — a looming expiration that, if left unaddressed, threatens to unravel a precarious thread of the social safety net at a particularly difficult time for many American families. Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit focused on increasing Internet adoption, said that although the school year is winding down, the need for access to the web — and the challenge of affording it — have not gone away.
The industry’s charitable Internet programs have been helpful, said Siefer, but ultimately amounted to a temporary “Band-Aid” on the still-gaping digital divide. “We had this problem pre-COVID,” Siefer said. “All COVID did was draw attention to it because of online learning. We have to come up with a substantial, long-term solution.”
“These students are already way behind because of the limited interactions we had with them.”
Due to coronavirus safety concerns, many public libraries, an Internet lifeline for low-income Americans, remain closed. About 21 million Americans are unemployed and have less income now to pay for online access to help with their job searches. Next month, a record number of New York City students will go to summer school online. Without Internet at home, some students have been doing schoolwork during the pandemic in parking lots using the ambient Wi-Fi from surrounding buildings.
The scope of the problem is reflected in the number of people who have taken advantage of the industry’s emergency measures during the pandemic.
Charter said it expects to provide free Internet to more than 400,000 students, teachers and their families. A Comcast spokesman said the company signed up 32,000 families for a free version of its low-cost service, known as Internet Essentials, at the end of March, just a few weeks after the lockdowns began. An AT&T spokeswoman said more than 156,000 customers have received financial assistance to stay connected to the company’s wireless, broadband and video services.
Thursday, Comcast announced it will be continuing its 60-day free Internet offer through the end of the year. AT&T plans to extend free unlimited wireless Internet for students until late August if schools request it by June 21. Similar free-Internet offers from Charter and Altice USA Inc., another cable provider, are set to expire June 30. Cox’s program is ending on July 15.
Friday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai asked Congress for legislation to help consumers and small businesses keep their Internet connections beyond June 30. Pai said he’d also asked companies to offer customers who are struggling financially due to the pandemic more flexible payment options, and to continue and expand their free-Internet programs for students.
As the pandemic drags on, other longer-term efforts are being made to help people in need maintain access to the web. In Portland, Oregon, a nonprofit that supports the local school system is sponsoring free Internet for up to six months for 2,000 families in partnership with Comcast. In Congress, House Democrats earmarked more than $5 billion in the next stimulus package to provide Internet to students and teachers and give people who were laid off or furloughed a $50 monthly credit for access to the web. But the measure is currently stalled.
Charter spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said the company is notifying customers in advance when the 60-day free period is about to expire and providing options for those who want a low-cost service. The company offers a $14.99-a-month service called Spectrum Internet Assist to low-income families. “As that free period ends, our goal is to work with our customers to find a plan that matches their needs and budget,” Blanchard said.
At an investor conference last month, Charter Chief Financial Officer Chris Winfrey said that providing free Internet to students and teachers was both a goodwill gesture and a business opportunity. “By doing good in the community and at the same time having a focus to acquire customers, then I think we’re going to end up with a lot more customers than we would have otherwise,” he said.
From the start, many of the industry’s pandemic-related measures came with certain conditions attached, such as stipulating that only new customers could qualify. Initially, Charter and Altice USA barred students from signing up whose families had an outstanding balance. Both companies lifted the policy after facing criticism. Another issue, said Siefer, is that the offers for free Internet for students and teachers weren’t widely advertised. “There was definitely an awareness problem,” she said. “A lot of folks didn’t know they existed.”
Back in Buffalo, just as Charter’s 60-day free offer was starting to run out, Elmwood Village Charter Schools bought about 20 Wi-Fi hotspots for families, including Akter’s, who couldn’t afford to pay for Internet access.
Even so, Liz Evans, the school’s director of operations, worries about how some students will fare in summer school, which runs through early August and will require Internet access. “These students are already way behind because of the limited interactions we had with them,” she said. “If we aren’t able to offer them summer school, they’re going to be that much further behind at the start of next year.”