Since March, the webpage run by the New Hampshire Farm Bureau listing local meat sellers has been viewed more than 2,500 times, a dramatic increase that’s indicative of the way New Hampshire consumers are actively seeking out products from local farms during the pandemic.
“It was pretty incredible for us just to see the traffic,” said Josh Marshall, communications director for the bureau. “The purchasing trends continue to support local. What I’m hoping is consumers will have reshaped their patterns.”
While there has been a push for more local product, the pandemic hasn’t affected New Hampshire’s farmers in a universal way. Many farmers who have direct-to-consumer sales have seen a spike in demand, as people try to avoid grocery stores and work around interruptions to the local supply chain. Other farmers, particularly in the dairy industry, are struggling with low prices and demand. With much of the state bordering on drought, produce farms are concerned about the size and quality of their harvest.
Lewis Farm in Concord has seen a spike in demand for its vegetables, mostly sold through the farm’s CSA, said owner James Meinecke. While it’s nice to see more people shopping local, Meinecke is very concerned about the lack of rain on his crop.
“We’ll most likely be seeing a reduced harvest this year because of the weather,” he said.
Normally, Lewis Farm partners with other local growers to offer a robust CSA. The farms swap or sell products to each other, and their CSAs feature goods from other farms. This year, Meinecke is having trouble finding farms to partner with, because other farmers are just as worried about meeting demand for their products.
“All the farms across the board are having trouble,” Meinecke said.
New Hampshire is providing financial support to farmers through the New Hampshire Agriculture Relief Program using funds from the CARES Act, but the funds are only available to farms that grossed more than $50,000 in sales in 2019. That excludes many small farms in New Hampshire, including Lewis Farm, according to Meinecke.
“There’s nothing out there that we qualified for,” he said.
Many farmers work their business on multiple fronts, making it difficult to know what relief programs they qualify for. Many farmers were initially excluded from help through the Small Business Administration (SBA), which directed farmers to seek funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“At the beginning, there was some confusion and some hiccups,” said Marshall. However, the SBA is now approving farmers for COVID relief, including the payment protection program (PPP), which covers payroll for eight weeks.
Beth Hodge, who owns Echo Farms with her sister Courtney Hodge, was able to access PPP funding, as well as federal funds through the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), meant to support food producers impacted by the pandemic. The programs helped with the two different sides of her business: selling milk through a co-op and producing puddings sold at local grocers and farm stands. Hodge is also in the process of applying for state relief funds.
“There’s been some help,” she said, adding, “it’s not enough to cover the shortfall.”
Deb Erb of Springvale Farms and Landaff Creamery in Landaff, sells milk to a co-op and produces cheeses. Her cheese sales dropped 70 percent when restaurants closed, and she was affected by a substantial decrease in dairy prices because of the pandemic. However, she was able to use the PPP loan and CFAP funds to stay afloat.
“We have not fared too bad,” she said. Overall, Erb feels supported by state and local programs supporting agriculture, but understands the frustrations of other farmers.
“Not everyone has been successful in tapping into some of the programs from the state or the federal government,” she said.
Erb has heard from other farmers who have had trouble getting employees back to work because pandemic unemployment assistance pays more than some farm labor jobs, but her workers were eager to return, she said.
Although Erb uses local labor these days, she’s used migrant workers in the past, like many larger farm operations in New Hampshire. The H-2A visa program, which allows foreigners to work in agriculture, has been affected, though not eliminated, by the pandemic, Marshall said. Most farmers have found they’ve been able to bring back workers who have been on the farm before, but they’ve had trouble bringing in new laborers because of immigration restrictions, Marshall said. He pointed out that having access to experienced farm workers — often migrants — is important to the vitality of New Hampshire farms.
“These are skilled laborers. They come back year after year. You can’t just find somebody with that knowledge,” he said.
At Parnassus Farm, a dairy operation in Acworth, owner John Luther is glad that his farm has kept him busy during the pandemic.
“I’m thankful I have a job,” he said.
Luther is uncertain about the future of the dairy industry, which he says has been overproducing milk for years. The pandemic price crash, while painful, was a necessary correction, he said.
“The problem was already there, it was simply heightened by the pandemic,” he said.
Luther sells most of his milk through s dairy co-op, but maintains a small side operation selling milk and beef directly to consumers. These days, he really values the relationships he has with customers who buy products from him. It’s the only time that he’s in control of his prices and sees the impact of his labor directly.
“The only people to whom I really matter are the people who buy milk directly from me,” Luther said. “Psychologically, it’s nice to matter.”