Farms, ranches face unknown futures with COVID-19

BEND, Ore. — Central Oregon farmers have crops to sell, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left them unsure who will buy the produce.

Farmers markets are postponed and restaurants are closed or only serving takeout orders due to the virus.

For now, the only outlets for many local farmers is Central Oregon Locavore, an indoor farmers market on Third Street in Bend, or community-supported agriculture programs where people invest in a farm and receive a portion of the produce.

“The major thing that will affect them is the farmers markets opening later or not opening at all,” said Nicolle Timm-Branch, founder and president of Locavore. “They have been bringing everything to us because a lot of the restaurants they would normally deliver to are not open.”

Timm-Branch said her nonprofit market is also giving the farmers a place to meet their community-supported agriculture members. The farmers can deliver their produce to Locavore, where members can pick it up.

In addition, Locavore is processing food stamps for the farmers to help them maintain customers through the pandemic.

“They can use our space instead of the farmers markets until the markets start opening,” Timm-Branch said.

The Downtown Bend Farmers Market and Bend’s NorthWest Crossing Farmers Market are delaying their openings until June. The Sisters Farmers Market hopes to open at its regular time in June. And the Redmond Saturday Market does not yet have a target date for opening.

The uncertainty around the local markets is especially affecting small farmers.

Amanda Benkert, who owns Dome Grown Produce in Redmond, relies on the Redmond Saturday Market each year to sell her fresh vegetables and herbs.

While she waits, Benkert is producing her usual amount of produce in her five greenhouses to be ready for when the market opens.

“By the time the farmers market starts this year, I should have a pretty good selection,” she said.

Benkert is getting creative in the meantime. She is starting a gift card system for her customers she is calling Harvest Bucks.

Benkert is also a part of a CSA program and delivers produce to Locavore.

“This is the year to support all the little and local farms,” Benkert said. “We are going all out to try to produce as much food as we can.”

Katrina Van Dis, executive director of the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, said there is a silver lining for Central Oregon farmers this year.

The region’s farmers are better suited for a late farmers market season since the growing season is later than in the Willamette Valley, Van Dis said.

“In terms of farming, this may be a blessing in disguise and crops will start growing and get to market in mid-May and June,” Van Dis said.

But many crops are already planted and supposed to go to restaurants or farmers markets, Van Dis said. Without CSA programs and Locavore, the farmers have nowhere to sell their crops, she said.

“CSA programs become more important,” she said. “Because farms don’t know about their other markets.”

Linda Anspach, owner of the DD Ranch in Terrebonne, said the ranch is seeing mixed results for the pandemic. Meat sales are increasing as people are stocking up, but the event space is losing reservations this summer, Anspach said.

“The fear over food storage has fielded some demand for our meat and honey, but on the other side our weddings are canceled and I’m having to refund money,” Anspach said.

Anspach worries the demand for meat will diminish and the summer weddings will still be canceled, leaving her ranch with little income for the year.

The DD Ranch, like other farms and ranches in Central Oregon, is counting on Locavore and CSA members more than ever.

Locavore already makes up 25% to 50% of the revenue for the DD Ranch, Anspach said. “I would not really exist without them,” Anspach said. “It’s a huge thing for us local farms and ranches to have them.”

Anspach is staying positive and hopes her ranch will weather the next couple of months until farmers markets open and people are able to return to the ranch.

“I don’t know what lies ahead,” Anspach said, “but it’s definitely daunting.”


Searchable directory locates locally grown ag products

Oregon’s Bounty, at OregonFB.org/oregonsbounty, is a searchable directory of nearly 300 family farms and ranches that sell food, foliage, and other ag products directly to the public.

“Oregon’s Bounty includes farm stands and CSAs from across the entire state, and the directory includes contact information,” said Anne Marie Moss, Oregon Farm Bureau communications director.

Oregon’s Bounty allows visitors to do keyword searches for specific ag products, such as blueberries, cucumbers, honey, or eggs, and/or search for farms and ranches within a specific region of the state.

“While so much of society has come to a standstill, Farm Bureau members are #StillFarming and #StillRanching, and for that, we are all very grateful,” said Moss. “A lot has changed, but the love Oregonians have for locally sourced food has not. We encourage everyone to support their local farms and ranches and to continue enjoying Oregon’s incredible agricultural bounty.”


When crisis strikes, Americans buy chicks

EUGENE, Ore. — The weeks leading up to Easter are always the busiest for chicken hatcheries, but this spring, chicks are nearly impossible to find as sales spike during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“Sales went up — a lot,” said Tom Watkins, vice president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, one of the country’s oldest and largest hatcheries that ships nationwide.

Watkins said chick sales at McMurray are up about 400% from 2019. Most orders are for broilers, or meat birds, said Watkins, with the best egg-laying breeds a close second. The hatchery is sold out for the spring, and people are already placing summer orders.

Across the U.S., people are buying record numbers of chicks. Industry leaders say people fearing food shortages are raising chickens to produce their own meat and eggs in the months to come. Experts say people are also buying chicks to have a backyard activity while they’re quarantined at home.

“People don’t know what’s going to happen,” said John Monaco, president of the American Poultry Association. “I think there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about food. But stressed-out people are also buying chicks so there’s something fun to watch running around their backyards.”

He chuckled.

Americans have a habit of raising chickens during times of crisis and confusion. Industry records show chick sales spike during presidential election years and stock market downturns. The last leap in chick sales near this scale happened when the avian influenza killed more than 60 million U.S. chickens between 2014 and 2015, raising the price of eggs.

But the 2020 wave of chicken owners aren’t all newbies. In fact, Watkins said the majority of his buyers this spring are previous customers either returning to raising chickens or buying more than usual.

Across the West, hatcheries and farm supply stores are seeing similar trends and rushing to keep up with orders.

Pete’s Hatchery in Gervais, Ore., which ships nationwide, is experiencing “an unusually high volume of orders.”

Jenks Hatchery in Tangent, Ore., founded in 1910, is sold out until the end of April.

Leslie Pierce, who manages chick sales at Naomi’s Organic Garden Supply in Portland, Ore., said chick sales are up significantly and the waitlist grows every day.

Jen Maxwell-Muir, a customer of Naomi’s Organic Garden Supply, has kept backyard chickens for more than 20 years.

“Right now, we’re getting two eggs a day,” she said. “When you’re limiting your trips to the grocery store, they’re like gold.”

Sam Bugarsky, CEO of Wilco, a farm supply cooperative, said this spring’s in-store “chick days,” or clinics on raising chicks, had record numbers of participants in mid-March just before the lockdown. He said sales of meat bird chicks such as Cornish crosses are up 12% at Wilco stores, with future egg-layers close behind.

“Murray McMurray founded our hatchery in 1917,” said Watkins. “He saw world wars and the Great Depression, and he used to say, ‘In times of hardship, people turn to chickens.’ I think that’s still true.”


Farmers join rush for SBA relief loans

Farmers and agribusiness owners across the U.S. are racing to apply at banks, credit unions and agricultural lenders for small business loans that are part of a COVID-19 federal relief package — before the money runs out.

The Payment Protection Program, run by the U.S. Small Business Administration, authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to support payroll so small businesses can keep workers employed during the pandemic.

The program is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Congress passed and the president signed March 27 to stimulate a virus-crippled economy.

The aid comes at a critical time when farms — especially those wracked by lost profits from displaced restaurant and wholesale markets — are hurting, industry leaders say. But because demand for PPP loans has been enormous, the loan pool is quickly evaporating.

“We expect the money to run out by the end of the week unless Congress puts more in the system,” said Tom Van Hoose, president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, the national trade association for 72 farm credit system lenders across the U.S.

Monday, the Paycheck Protection Program had already approved 880,000 applications totaling $217 billion, or 62% of allocated dollars, according to SBA figures.

Within just 36 hours of launching PPP, Columbia Bank, a commercial bank with locations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, received more loan requests than would typically be received in six to eight months and can handle no new applications, said a spokesperson.

“A lot of anxious farmers want to apply,” said Mark Hayes, spokesperson for the Farm Credit Council.

PPP loans are not just for agriculture. Across sectors, small businesses with fewer than 500 employees are eligible to apply.

According to SBA, businesses can apply for a loan up to 2 1/2 times their monthly payroll — enough to keep their workers employed two more months.

SBA will forgive all PPP loans if a business keeps all its employees on payroll for eight weeks and at least 75% of the loan is used for payroll. The remainder can be used for utilities, rent or mortgage interest. If a business breaks a requirement, the aid converts to a two-year loan at 1% interest.

Experts say non-agricultural lenders were typically first to get applications processed.

Hayes said this is because many banks and credit unions were already SBA lenders and could start immediate processing, while the farm credit system was new to working with SBA and “had a lot of government agency hurdles to get through.”

Van Hoose estimates only 20 to 25 of the 72 farm credit programs are ready to process applications.

“It’s been chaotic,” said Van Hoose. “Really, our lenders are just getting started right when the money is about to run out.”

The Farm Credit Council encourages farmers to consult with their local agricultural lenders, but said farmers with relationships with commercial SBA-lender banks should apply there first.

Although applications won’t be processed once money runs out, the Farm Credit Council encourages farms to apply anyway so they will be at the top of the queue if Congress approves more money later.

Van Hoose and Hayes say they hope Congress will recognize agricultural industry needs and increase loan resources.

“Farms have been hurting for a long time, and now they’re really hurting in this pandemic,” said Hayes. “This is timely assistance, but it’s a finite pool of money and I hope more help is on the way.”


More people buying food directly from farms during virus

ENETA, Ore. — New unemployment claims in Oregon catapulted nearly 1,500% the last week of March, according to the Oregon Employment Department. But for Brandon Huff and his wife, Phaedra, owners of Ambrosia Farm in Veneta, Ore., this is their busiest season yet.

Industry leaders say more people are buying directly from farms to avoid grocery store crowds, shorten the supply chain and secure a reliable food source at a time when store shelves are often empty.

“Everyone’s getting laid off and talking on social media about chillin’,” said Brandon Huff. “And over here, I’m busier than ever. It seems like agriculture is full speed ahead.”

Experts say subscriptions to CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — have spiked the past few weeks. CSA is a partnership between a farmer and customer in which a customer pays for a membership share in exchange for a weekly box of fresh produce, meat or other farm goods.

Ambrosia Farm runs a CSA program. Members pay a share price at the start of the growing season and receive weekly boxes of colorful cabbage, peppers, strawberries, spinach and more. The farm offers both delivery and pickup options.

“We’re seeing a major uptick in CSA memberships,” said Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or PACSAC.

In the past two weeks, RJ Ewing, operations manager for Deck Family Farm in Junction City, Ore., said the farm’s number of CSA members has leapt from 80 to 125.

Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association and former owner of a 50-member CSA, said people may be seeking farm-direct food for a sense of stability.

“People are feeling a little food insecure,” said Crane. “Having a relationship with a farmer committed to delivering food every week is reassuring.”

Hutchason and Crane said people may also be choosing CSAs to sidestep grocery stores and distribution chains.

“I you’re concerned about how many people are handling your food,” said Crane, “buying direct from the farm is the shortest imaginable supply chain.”

Heidi Noordjik, Oregon State University’s small farms coordinator, said she thinks CSAs are also gaining traction because more people are cooking at home and thinking about how they can support local businesses and producers.

CSA is unfamiliar to many consumers, said Hutchason, but it’s also new to many farms.

Before the virus outbreak, said Hutchason, many small farms relied heavily on restaurant sales. With so many restaurants now closed or limited to take-out and delivery, Hutchason called the change a “huge loss for farmers.”

Many of these farms, she said, have been forced to adapt by expanding or creating CSAs.

Laura Masterson, owner of 47th Avenue Farm in Portland, Ore., has run a CSA for 24 years and also sells to restaurants. Masterson said the farm has about twice as many CSA sign-ups now as this time last year, and after restaurants shut down, over 50 current members signed up for an extra weekly box of vegetables.

Aaron Nichols, co-owner of Stoneboat Farm in Hillsboro, Ore., said about 60% of sales are typically to restaurants—including about 300 pounds per week of salad greens. With restaurants closed, Nichols plans to double the number of available CSA shares. He predicts CSA crops won’t be as profitable as restaurant crops but said he’s “incredibly grateful” for the community support.

“Farms are responding to this crisis really creatively,” said Crane of OFMA. “It’s early enough in the season that they’re trying to shift their models in advance of harvest.”

Crane said across the state, numerous small farms have set up online ordering systems such as Barn2Door and Farmigo, coordinated home and curbside delivery options and created pick-up sites.

Many farms are also strategizing how to make CSA more affordable.

One common criticism of CSA is that payment is often required up-front. For example, a payment for six months of produce may be due this spring to cover farmers’ planting and other expenses.

In the midst of a pandemic, said PACSAC’s Hutchason, more farms are creating payment options, such as smaller shares or payments by the week or month, for consumers who can’t afford to pay up front.

“It’s a huge stretch for farmers not to ask for the capital at the front of the season,” said Hutchason. “It’s a sacrifice. It shows their commitment to feeding their communities.”

PACSAC, said Hutchason, processes SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, so consumers can use SNAP benefits to buy CSA shares and so farmers can focus on farming.

Double Up Food Bucks, a related program, allows farmers to offer up to $200 in matching funds to subscribers who use SNAP to pay their shares.

“It’s a big time of change for CSA,” said Crane. “But small farmers are hustlers. They’ve gotta be. They’re the original gig economists. They’ve always had to be innovative and responsive, so they’re really well-oriented to pivot during a crisis to keep feeding society.”