From fires and floods to droughts and hurricanes, Mother Nature has been training farmers how to pivot since the beginning of time. As a collective society, we were not prepared to face the challenges and pitfalls that COVID-19’s viral winds threw our way. But with feet planted and soil in their hands, farmers were prepared to brace the damage that a global pandemic might leave in its wake.
When COVID-19 made landfall in the U.S., businesses began to batten down the hatches. Restaurants closed their doors and sent their employees home. Not only did restaurant closings directly affect the livelihoods of millions, but it also cut out a revenue stream for farmers. Farms in eastern North Carolina were still rebuilding from the devastating damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, which collectively caused approximately $1.5 billion in crop and livestock losses.
A Glimpse into the Effects of Hurricane Season
Cane Creek Valley Farm in 2020, two years after Hurricane Florence. Amanda Sizemore, Cane Creek Valley Farm’s co-owner and operator, used this field for social-distanced movie nights. Photo courtesy of Cane Creek Valley Farm
Hurricane Florence was the more devastating of the two hurricanes, wreaking havoc on farms from the coast to the mountains of North Carolina. “In 2018, we lost 80% of our crops, roughly $675,000, and doubled our debt in one year and we were almost out of debt,” said Amanda Sizemore, a fourth-generation farmer and co-founder of Cane Creek Valley Farm in western North Carolina. Amanda and her family received some funds from North Carolina’s Agriculture Disaster Program until the state pulled Henderson and Buncombe County out of the program.
“From 2018 to 2020, we used all of our own savings to invest and try to farm and keep things going,” Sizemore said, “Because, after a loss like that, we couldn’t pay back our operating loans so we couldn’t borrow money.” The farm eventually fell back into the disaster program, which ultimately saved their farm.
The story for All American Produce Company, a group of multi-generational produce growers in eastern North Carolina, wasn’t different from that of Cane Creek Valley Farm. All American Produce Company, which is located just a hair over two hours from North Carolina’s coast, experienced a devastating loss when Hurricane Florence came through.
LEFT: Billy Augustine, owner, and president of All American Produce shared an image via Instagram of one of his fields the day before Hurricane Florence made landfall. RIGHT: Augustine shared the aftermath of that same field four days after Hurricane Florence made landfall.
“We had 30 inches of rain in two days, and it was a total loss,” said Billy Augustine, owner, and president of All American Produce. “There really isn’t a bounce back. Insurance is pennies on the dollar vs. what you have invested in a crop that’s that far along. You do all this work and you’re not going to make anything.”
Bouncing back from devastation caused by Hurricane Florence wasn’t an option, but bouncing back from the effects of COVID was manageable.
How Cane Creek Valley Farm and All American Produce Pivoted During COVID-19
During the pandemic, Cane Creek Valley Farm brought back their farm stand, as they saw an uptick in the community wanting to purchase from local farmers. Photo courtesy of Cane Creek Valley Farm.
With COVID-19 running rampant in the U.S. like unwanted pests in a produce field, Cane Creek Valley Farm and All American Produce had no choice but to pivot their operations. Although the need to pivot farm operations was still tricky, the two farms experienced a silver lining that doesn’t exist with natural disasters.
Cane Creek Valley Farm started to pivot its model well before COVID-19. After 2018, the farm continued to flood, making Sizemore think more about how to shift the farm’s business model since farming the bottomland was becoming less of an option. “We’re just dreaming a different dream now,” said Sizemore. She did feel the loss in revenue from the food service industry along with her fellow farmers, but she saw an increase in people wanting to support and know their local farms.
“We saw an increase in our produce stand and our u-pick,” said Sizemore, “People wanted to buy gardening soil and plants for their gardens.” The renewed interest in local farms gave Sizemore hope for the future of Cane Creek Valley, as she wants to use 25 acres of the farm for agritourism. She and her husband will continue to farm 10-12 acres of organic produce and hopes to eventually have sheep for lamb meat.
LEFT: All American Produce blueberry bushes thrived in April 2020, two years after Hurricane Florence. Photo courtesy of All American Produce. RIGHT: All American Produce North Carolina cucumbers grow in abundance in May 2020. Photo courtesy of All American Produce.
For All American Produce, the shift was slightly different, as Augustine didn’t have to change the business model due to constant flooding. And unlike Hurricane Florence for Augustine, COVID-19 didn’t wipe out the farm’s income but it was still a challenge.
“For our business, the foodservice industry was 30% to 40% of our income,” said Augustine. “We lost 90% of that business.” As the food service industry shut down, the retail market for growers picked up. The demand for fresh produce in the retail market and the need for farmers to sell their extra produce caused a bottleneck effect. Augustine felt the competition, as farmers were now going after the same markets. He did join the USDA’s program, Farmers to Families Food Box, which helped to offload the produce that would’ve gone to the food service industry. Despite all of the challenges, Augustine was able to sustain and maintain the farm operation.
Happy Dirt’s Commitment to Farmers
Photographer Michael Rubenstein captures Happy Dirt CEO Sandi Kronick at dawn. Kronick checks out a ripe green pepper from one of Happy Dirt’s farm partners.
When farmers experience a shift, whether it be positive or negative, we feel that shift as well. If a farm loses its crops due to a natural disaster like a hurricane or if a global pandemic causes a surge in demand for fresh produce, we adapt with them because we are committed to being champions of their hard work. Last year with the help of our retail customers, we were able to put over $6,832,081 back into the pockets of our farm partners. As we grow, build more resilience, as well as wealth, for our farmers. And when Mother Nature or a public health crisis decides differently, we will stand by our farmers and care for them as much as they care for our food.