Switch to retail, delivery pays off

CARLSBAD, Calif. — A third-generation grower who has been in business for more than three decades, Jimmy Ukegawa has seen plenty of ups and downs, and had to regroup and retool his strategies to adapt with the times.

But the pivot he made as the coronavirus pandemic began and shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed in California has paid off in ways he never expected.

He grows strawberries on 25 acres in Carlsbad, a coastal city in San Diego County, and hosts U-pick days when the public can visit and pick all the berries they want. Before COVID-19 began, he had begun expanding operations, using warehouse space to put up a farmstand.

When the lockdown happened, he realized people needed a safe place to go and he thought shopping outdoors would provide that opportunity, especially for families with children who find it challenging to remain indoors for long periods.

Ukegawa expanded the farmstand into a farmers market of sorts, sourcing locally grown produce and locally made foods such as jam, wine, salsa and guacamole, in addition to strawberries.

“It’s been going gangbusters,” Ukegawa said. “Our business has increased 300% to 400% since the pandemic began. People are looking for places to go where they can do something.”

The fact that he is located right by the Interstate 5 corridor has also helped boost agritourism.

He also began including produce he sources from the wholesale market in the deliveries he makes, enabling area customers to choose a la carte items or buy a produce box that varies from week to week and is delivered to their doorstep.

His oldest daughter, Robyn, manages web orders and posts what will be available for delivery each week. She also helps manage the retail stands that are open from 8 a.m to 5 p.m daily.

Ukegawa makes sure he carefully vets the goods and produce that he sources.

“It’s so important for the products and produce to taste good, so customers come back,” he said. “This is a lot like back in the day when shopkeepers would help customers fill out their grocery list.”

Word-of-mouth referrals have helped boost sales in a region that’s known for its strong community roots.

Ukegawa recalled how different this is from when he worked with his father, who ran a 1,500-acre tomato farm and 200-acre strawberry farm. In those days, he was up until 2 a.m packing boxes of tomatoes. Cheaper imports and the high cost of water meant the family had to wind down the extensive operations and sell land.

He took over in 1996 with 25 acres devoted to strawberries, and is now focused on expanding retail and delivery operations for local goods.

“So many people asked us to continue this after the pandemic, so this will become a permanent part of our business,” Ukegawa said.

Bill introduced in Congress to aid farms that CFAP missed

Help may be on the way for direct-market farms during COVID-19 — that is, if Congress makes a move.

Last week, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced the Local and Regional Farmer and Market Support Act, aimed at helping farms that other aid programs have overlooked.

The bill is similar to USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP. But it’s smaller — about $1 billion versus CFAP’s $16 billion — and it targets farmers CFAP missed.

The bill, if passed, would create a payment relief program for farmers that sell direct-to-consumer — mainly in local and regional markets. It would also funnel $25 million into a grant pool to help farmers with direct marketing expenses, another $25 million to help farmers markets and similar organizations pay for infrastructure changes like public health installations and $50 million in targeted assistance to minority farm communities and farmers of color.

To qualify, a farm must get 25% or more of its sales income directly from consumers. This includes a variety of hybrid models, including farmers markets, CSAs, regional cooperatives and local food hubs.

Advocates say the bill is crucial to help farmers in direct-to-consumer markets.

Although many small-scale and organic farms are technically eligible for CFAP aid, trade association leaders say the law does not serve these groups well. That’s because USDA calculates CFAP payments based on national average prices. Farmers with premium markets say CFAP does not cover their losses and pays them mere pennies on the dollar.

“The original prices per pound proposed in CFAP were often laughable to farmers in specialty, local, regional and direct markets,” said Amy Wong, policy director at Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon grassroots nonprofit.

One premium-market potato grower, for example, lost $20,000, but calculated CFAP would only reimburse him $800, she said. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.

Instead of following CFAP’s price index model, the new bill would base payments on a farm’s historic revenue.

Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said his organization has been advocating a revenue-based approach all along, even when CFAP was introduced. Deeble didn’t get his way last spring, but he said he hopes this bill will pass.

“Conversations among legislators so far have been very, very good — constructive,” he said.

But a policy analyst familiar with the bill who did not wish to be identified told the Capital Press that Congress appears to have higher priorities than this bill — debates over the next federal relief package, unemployment benefits and the impending election.

This bill, the source said, is likely low on legislators’ list of concerns. And because Congress hasn’t exhibited much bipartisan cooperation of late, it looks a bit like a lame duck session even before the real lame duck session after the election.

Nevertheless, farm advocacy groups continue to press legislators to move the bill forward.

“I’ve heard from so many small farms in need all across Oregon, and I’m hopeful this will pass for their sake,” said Wong of the nonprofit.

Honey bee colonies up in winter, down in spring

A new report from USDA signals a little sweet news for honey bees.

January 2020, the number of colonies nationwide was up 8% from January 2019, an increase from 2.67 million to 2.88 million colonies.

Winter, experts say, is usually the season with the most hive loss. But honey bees this year had a better-than-usual winter.

“A lot of bees normally die in the winter. It’s cold. They’re stuck in their house. That’s when a lot of winter diseases can happen. Varroa mites can cause problems in the winter if they haven’t been treated properly in the fall. If it’s too cold, bees can freeze, and if it’s too hot, they’re active and eat through their honey. Maybe we just hit a perfect winter,” said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

This spring and summer have been harder on bees. January through March, this year’s hive losses of 14% were similar to last year’s losses. And beekeepers lost 8% of hives April through June.

These numbers aren’t shocking or historic, entomologists say, but seeing similar losses year after year can be disheartening.

USDA lists varroa mites, which carry a deadly illness called the deformed wing virus, as the No. 1 stressor.

Buckley of WSDA said this year’s losses may be attributable to the usual suspects — including weather, diseases and parasites.

Some states have fared better than others.

Adam Peters, USDA honey bee statistician, said Washington state reported less than 3% hive loss, the lowest ever for the state since the agency started keeping track.

Despite losses, beekeepers are celebrating the small victories.

The 8% colony increase, statisticians say, means the industry is doing comparatively OK. At the very least, it means good propagation of bees is still happening.

Peters of USDA said those “added hives” mean beekeepers this year not only replaced, but exceeded, the number of lost hives with new ones. When a beekeeper loses hives, he said, they will often create new ones, either by purchasing starter kits from breeders or by “splitting” hives into smaller ones.

Buckley of WSDA said splitting hives is also necessary to prevent bees from swarming.

USDA’s data contrast with recent survey results from the Informed Bee Partnership, which reported that April 2019 through April 2020, U.S. beekeepers lost an estimated 44% of colonies.

USDA statisticians say the Bee Informed Partnership is a respectable source, but the organization likely uses a smaller sample size, different methodology and different survey questions than USDA.

Even USDA will be updating its numbers for the past two quarters later this year.

Peters, the statistician, said beekeepers typically give more detailed survey answers during their “down time,” while their replies are often more generalized during their busiest times of the year.

But even if the numbers change, he said, they’re likely to show the bee industry had a good winter and an average spring and summer.

“I see that as a good thing, but that’s because I’m the honey bee stat guy,” he said.

Small Farm School goes online

Registration for Oregon State University’s Small Farm School opens Aug. 18.

This year offered as an online event because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is a collaboration of OSU, Clackamas Community College, Clackamas Soil and Water District, Rogue Farm Corps and Friends of Family Farmers.

Small Farm School 2020 will be a series of online sessions running Tuesday and Thursday evenings from Sept. 15 through Nov. 19. The sessions will be presented from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Classes will include: Poultry for Beginning Farmers, Field to Market Food Safety from Farm to Kitchen, Racism in Oregon Agriculture, Equitable Food Access: Hear from Farmers in the Field, Pasture Management, How to start a farm business, Developing a Brand Identity, Dry Farming: Vegetable Crops in the Maritime Pacific Northwest, Sustainable Hemp Production Growing Hemp Responsibly,
Data Tracking on your farm, Equitable Food Access: How to contribute to Oregon’s Food Sovereignty Network, CSA in a pandemic, Cut Flowers, Weed control, Winter vegetables in the PNW growing and marketing, Bookkeeping Practices, Regenerative Ag/ Soil Ecology, and Farming while black: Documentary and discussion w/FOFF.

For more information, go the the event’s website.

Here’s a course for small farmers and ranchers

Washington State University Extension is taking registration for a 12-week online course from small-scale farmers and ranchers.

Sustainable Small-Acreage Farming and Ranching will be presented via Zoom on Tuesday evenings from Sept. 22 through Dec. 8. The course is for small- and medium-sized producers, or those who plan to start farming.

“Sponsored by WSU Snohomish County Extension, Snohomish Conservation District, and King Conservation District, the course gives participants a broad overview of production and marketing options for today’s small farm,” according to the event website.  “Whether you are just exploring the opportunities available or already have an existing operation, you’ll learn what it takes to create, sustain, and grow a viable small farm enterprise.”

“Weekly presentations include local growers, organizations, and university specialists with expertise in direct marketing, value-added processing, production planning, agronomy, livestock production, and more. In addition to a wealth of resources on a broad variety of ag-related topics, students will also receive a copy of Market Farm Success by Lynn Byczynski”

The instructors are Kate Ryan, a grower and Agriculture Program Coordinator for WSU Snohomish County Extension, and Bobbi Lindemulder, a cattle rancher and District Operations Program Manager for the Snohomish Conservation District.

Class size is limited, and participants must pre-pay a $200 per family registration fee. To register, and to get more information, go to the event website.

Need sparks home food delivery

ENTERPRISE, Ore. — Last spring the world was shaken by a global pandemic that either sent people home to work or left them unemployed. The shutdown shuttered restaurants and left local producers with nowhere to distribute their food.

Here in the far northeastern corner of Oregon, a unique online marketplace was expanded to allow those producers to sell their crops and products and have them delivered to customers’ doorsteps.

About a year ago, Kristy Athens started an online gift shop called Genuine Wallowa County featuring locally made products. Her five-year plan was to add locally grown food to the online store’s offerings, but the pandemic put that plan on a fast track.

“A couple local producers asked if I would sell food on my website,” Athens said. “They were interested in not having to do their own laborious deliveries.”

Mary Hawkins of Hawkins Sisters Ranch, Theresa Stangel of Stangel Bison Ranch and Beth Gibans of Backyard Gardens started meeting with Athens in January. COVID-19 pushed the idea to the front burner in a hurry.

“It became clear that it was a really good time to offer food delivery to people’s houses so they don’t have to endanger themselves by going to a grocery store,” Athens said. “Meanwhile, restaurants were closed and local producers had nowhere to sell their food. If there is ever a time to be resilient as a county, it’s during a pandemic.”

In 2015 Athens, a writer drawn to the food justice movement, graduated with a master’s degree in food systems from Marylhurst University in Portland.

“I work in economic development and was looking for ways to put those things together,” Athens said. “What I really wanted to do and hopefully still will is create a larger scale incubator farm. Wallowa County has a very strong brand as far as tourism and I think we could use that brand as far as local food production is concerned.”

As the outreach specialist for Northeast Oregon Economic Development District, Athens came across a 2006 economic study. One of the recommendations was to create a Wallowa County brand.

The online gift shop cultivated Wallowa County brand recognition, and GWC Provisions brought food delivery into the mix.

The results from a poll on a community Facebook page were overwhelming. She realized she had a market.

Athens said she started with pre-sale memberships and fundraising for supplies. She received small grants from the Eastern Oregon Workforce Board and Slow Foods Wallowa as well as investments from community members to buy a refrigerator and freezer, design a website and cover other startup costs.

GWC Provisions meat and produce are either delivered to customers’ doors or dropped off in insulated bags at Main Street Motors in Enterprise, a central location for most people in the county.

Athens sells items like chicken, bison, goat, vegetables and fruit, Jor energy bars and Sei Mee Tea and Joseph Creek Coffee. She’s even started selling some of the bounty from her garden — items that don’t compete with her vendors.

Vendors receive 80% of the retail price, and $1 of every sale goes to one of the county’s two food banks. Eventually, Athens said she would like to be able to accept the Oregon Trail card.

Athens says her new online venture put into practice her entrepreneurship and work on food justice.

“I feel like after having talked about food justice for two straight years in grad school it feels good to do something on the ground that has results and is affecting people,” Athens said.

How farmers are using native mason bees to boost crop production

BOTHELL, Wash. — Jim Watts calls himself a farmer, but he doesn’t raise livestock or crops. Watts is a bee farmer.

Across the West, growers are turning to a tiny, overlooked insect to pollinate crops: the native mason bee. In Washington state, Watts is leading the movement.

Researchers call mason bees “the new frontier” for crop pollination.

In recent years, many farmers say they have bought or rented mason bees because they are affordable, low maintenance, improve crop yields, repopulate areas with native species and even push honey bees working alongside them to be more efficient.

Researchers have known about mason bees’ pollinating potential for decades, but their use in agriculture has been overshadowed by the ubiquitous honey bee.

USDA’s most recent data show farmers in the Western U.S. spend more than $300 million annually on crop pollination by honey bees. Western farms use honey bees in dozens of crops across millions of acres. For example, 2020 reports show California farms are using honey bees to pollinate 1.2 million almond acres, and Northwest farms this year are pollinating nearly 300,000 fruit tree acres.

Until recently, large-scale propagation of mason bees has been a pipe dream.

Now, it’s taking wing.

Story of a bee farmer
Watts, owner of Watts Solitary Bees, grew up on a bee farm. His dad, Roger, started raising leafcutter bees, best known for pollinating alfalfa, in the 1960s. When Jim Watts grew up, he and his family took over the business, which his dad still helps with today.

Around 2008, Watts decided to try propagating mason bees. For eight years, he floundered, failing to replicate nature. Those eight years, he didn’t make a dollar and often ran in the red.

“I wanted to quit,” said Watts. “But my dad kept saying, ‘Keep doing it. It’s going to work.’ We finally got it right. Now we’re producing millions of bees and we plan to keep expanding.”

Watts Solitary Bees has two divisions: a commercial side that sells mason and leafcutter bees to large-scale producers, and a rental side, called Rent Mason Bees, that rents bees to small farms, backyard gardeners and urbanites.

The rental program, city dwellers say, teaches people where their food comes from and helps build bridges in a time when tensions are high between rural and urban communities.

Different kind of bee
Most people are only familiar with honey bees, but there are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide and more than 450 in Washington state alone, said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Early European settlers introduced honey bees to North America; mason bees were natives. People have domesticated honey bees for thousands of years, Buckley said, but mason beekeeping is relatively new.

Entomologists say mason bees are different from social honey bees. The mason bee prefers to be left alone. It is gentle, doesn’t have a fancy hive and dresses a bit like the common fly. It has no queen to protect, because every female is fertile. Because of its solitary nature, it is less likely to pass along illness. It braves the rain and works in colder weather. It nests in a cavity and lies dormant all winter, tucked inside a tiny, hard cocoon. It doesn’t produce honey. And in many crops, mason bees outperform other pollinators.

Belly floppers
“Mason bees are clumsy and they belly-flop onto flowers. It’s so funny to watch,” said Thyra McKenzie, a Seattle resident who rents mason bees each year for her backyard.

Entomologists say mason bees are effective pollinators partly because of how they carry pollen. Honey bees wet pollen to make it sticky and carry it in baskets on their legs, but mason bees belly-flop onto flowers, then carry dry pollen on their abdomens. As they travel flower to flower, flecks fall off, doing the work of pollination.

Mason bees are also generalists, said Olivia Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees. Shangrow said honey bees are specialists that work systemically, but mason bees pop here and there, appearing “distracted,” which makes them great cross-pollinators.

Bee alternative
“Everybody’s nervous about colony collapse disorder in honey bees,” said Brian Bly, a grower with 9,000 almond acres at Hart Farms in Orland, Calif. “My farm is so reliant on pollinators, so we got mason bees as a plan B, a sort of insurance policy.”

Bly bought his first batch of 100,000 mason bees five years ago — not to replace honey bees, but to complement them.

Studies from Stanford University and USDA have shown a hive of honey bees is healthier, less stressed and twice as efficient when working alongside other pollinators.

Before using mason bees, Bly rented honey bees at $200 per hive, two hives per acre. Each hive contained up to 30,000 honey bees.

But because mason bees are more efficient pollinators, fewer are needed per acre. Bly said when he puts 1,000 mason bees on an acre, he only needs to rent one honey bee hive instead of two, cutting costs.

Bly said he also likes working with mason bees because they are easy to care for.

Watts estimates mason bee care takes about 20 minutes of setup-teardown per acre each year, plus a few days per 100 acres each fall opening nesting blocks, cleaning cocoons and putting hibernating bees in cold storage for the winter.

Some farms, Watts said, are also excited about marketing their food as “pollinator friendly” or “pollinated with native bees” to meet growing consumer demands.

“I’m very excited about the mason bees and I hope to keep expanding,” said Bly.

Bly said he hasn’t measured the difference in production yet, but when his honey bees are still inside their hives on cold mornings, he sees the mason bees outside working.

Some farmers have measured. One California almond grower who purchased mason bees from Watts Solitary Bees said his trees yielded 800 pounds more nuts per acre.

Through entomologists’ eyes
Compared to honey bee research, mason bee studies are relatively uncharted territory, so it’s hard to quantify how efficient mason bees are, said Theresa Pitts-Singer, entomologist at USDA’s bee lab.

Researchers do know mason bees are especially good at pollinating fruit trees such as apples and plums, said Buckley, WSDA’s pollinator health coordinator. Studies have also confirmed their effectiveness in pollinating almonds, early raspberry varieties, cherries and pears.

Lisa Horth, professor of biology at Old Dominion University in Virginia, found in a series of studies that using mason bees to pollinate strawberries makes berries “substantially larger.”

Horth said she’s involved in studies happening now tracking mason bee use in other crops. Although Horth said she can’t reveal details yet, she said the results are “amazing.”

What farmers should know
Researchers say they think the “mason bee revolution” is coming, but there’s a lot farmers should know first.

Just like honey bees, mason bees have adversaries. Buckley of WSDA said special nesting blocks should be used to keep out enemies, including Houdini flies and predatory wasps. Farmers should also do an annual cocoon cleaning to remove pollen mites.

Some bees will naturally disperse into the wild, making their nests in hollow stems, rockeries or woodpecker holes, said Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees.

Experts say putting a football-sized chunk of wet clay or mud every acre makes mason bees more likely to stay because they mud-cap their holes. To encourage bees to stick around, Buckley also encourages farmers to plant native shrubs and flowers around fields.

Mason bees only fly in a 300- to 400-foot radius from their nest, so farmers need to disperse nesting materials throughout their acreage. Watts Solitary Bees offers on-site consultations.

Farmers also need to plan ahead for their anticipated bloom date. Mason bees typically pollinate March through May, Watts said, but can be managed to fly earlier or later.

Adult mason bees hibernate in cocoons over winter. Bly, the California almond grower, simulates winter by keeping his bees in a climate-insulated container starting in August so they wake up to February almond blossoms.

But nature can only be bent so far, and entomologists say waking bees up too early or too late can kill them. Researchers say farmers should consult with bee experts.

Horth of Old Dominion said she has great respect for farmers of all kinds, organic and conventional, but said bees are safer on no-spray farms.

The well-known reason is that pesticides can kill adult bees if sprayed incorrectly.

The lesser-known reason is based on a discovery University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers made in 2019. In their larval state, mason bees are omnivores, feeding on tiny microbes in pollen. Farmers who spray insecticides may inadvertently kill larvae, which need microbes in their diet.

A farmer’s success with mason bees, Watts said, depends on their attitude and how closely they follow instructions.

Bee farming
Jim Watts is not the only mason bee producer. Entomologists say a few smaller-scale mason bee farmers are scattered throughout the U.S.

One is Dave Hunter, owner of Crown Bees in Woodinville, Wash.

Hunter recalls mason bees first caught his attention 20 years ago when his wife noticed the neighbors’ apple tree was drooping with ripe apples while their own tree was almost bare. When Hunter realized the neighbors had mason bees, he drilled holes in a block of wood to lure the bees with a nest and — voila! — the apples did better the next year.

Hunter started Crown Bees 12 years ago. Unlike Watts, he’s not yet at the commercial farm scale. Instead, he sells wholesale to about 500 nurseries and hardware stores across the nation, including Wilco. He said he is continuing to grow the business and hopes to reach commercial-scale farmers “soon.”

Bridging urban-rural divide
Perhaps the most inventive part of Watts Solitary Bees is its Rent Mason Bees program, designed to work in conjunction with its commercial side.

Over the past few years, thousands of people in suburban and urban areas have rented mason bees through the company, said Shangrow, the program’s biologist. The company sells rental kits of 60, 120 or 240 bees.

Shangrow said the program teaches people where their food comes from, pollinates backyard gardens and repopulates areas with native bees because some of the bees fly away.

By following simple instructions, renters encourage bees to breed, then ship young cocooned bees back to the company. Some of these bees will be put back in the program and end up in other renters’ backyards next spring; others will end up on farms, meaning city dwellers help raise bees for farms.

“I think native bees can be part of bridging the urban-rural divide,” said Watts.

McKenzie, the Seattle resident, started renting mason bees four years ago.

“My husband had been dead-set on getting honey bees. But come on. My little boy and his friends in a tiny backyard? That’s just asking for trouble,” she said.

When McKenzie learned about nonaggressive mason bees, she bought a rental kit.

“Now I’m hooked,” said McKenzie.

With her kids home from school this spring during the COVID-19 shutdown, McKenzie said the bees were an educational project about science, food and farming.

During the shutdown, hundreds of families stuck at home turned to Rent Mason Bees as a backyard science project.

Mason bee season is wrapping up for 2020, and Watts said orders for next year open this fall.

Beekeeping taking flight
Mason beekeeping is growing, but it still has a long way to go, researchers say.

Contrasted with millions of crop acres across the U.S. pollinated by honey bees, farms only raise mason bees on about 1,500 acres, said Watts.

But barriers are crumbling.

In 2016, mason bees cost upwards of $1 per bee. Now, Watts said he charges about 30 to 40 cents per bee. In the next few decades, experts predict the price per bee will fall to 5 cents.

“French wine is to the honey bee exactly what California wine is to the mason bee,” said Hunter of Crown Bees. “The honey bee industry is enormous and gets a lot of attention, but mason bees are the up-and-coming pollinators.”

More research about mason bees is underway, but it will take time and researchers will need farms to participate in experiments.

“I strongly believe this industry is at its tipping point,” said entomologist Pitts-Singer. “I’m very hopeful that after 40 years of knowing this bee was a good pollinator, its popularity will finally take flight.”

Farmers markets get help switching to online ordering

The Oregon Farmers Market Association is helping its members establish online ordering systems to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

As more farmers markets seek to move transactions online, managers can consult the association for technical assistance and software recommendations.

“We’re here to help them understand their choices and support them in implementing the choices they make,” said the association’s executive director, Kelly Crane.

So far, the association has assisted 27 farmers markets — about a quarter of the state’s total.

“Farmers markets are really nimble, creative entities,” Crane said. “They’ll be the first to tell you, every market is different” with unique needs and challenges.

Some farmers markets can’t operate on site because of local regulations. Others don’t have space to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Several are waiting on delayed permits. Many have concerned customers opting out of on-site visits.

To limit interactions, more farmers markets are letting customers order and purchase goods such as berries, fruits and vegetables on the internet before pick-up.

“(Customers) don’t have to exchange money, pick things out and have it weighed — it’s all ready to go,” Crane said.

Some farmers markets offer it as an option, while others have opted to have all customers pre-order online.

For example, in Florence, Ore., the farmers market is online-only since many of its customers are retirees, who have a higher risk of becoming serious ill from COVID-19.

“It’s like we’ve totally reinvented our market,” said Mary Shaw, the market president. “The customers are very grateful to have access to local food.”

Tourist revenue is much lower, but Shaw’s priority is to offer high-quality food to the local community. So far, revenue resembles the market’s first season, three years ago.

Shaw is still working to reach customers who use SNAP benefits with the Oregon Trail card to purchase food. “They are the cornerstone of our market,” Shaw said. Many don’t use computers or relied on computers at the library, which is still closed.

Online platforms can’t process the Oregon Trail card, so SNAP customers pay at the information booth when they pick up their orders.

While Shaw misses community members congregating at the market, there are no plans to open as a walk-in market.

“The market is doing well,” she said. “Sales are trending upwards,” thanks to the online adjustments, which will be a permanent option beyond the pandemic.

Crane, the head of the state farmers market association, believes the online adjustments will help farmers markets in the long run.

“Industry leaders have been really interested in this topic,” she said. “We see the customer trends and we’ve wanted to get our farmers markets interested for long-term viability.”

Before the pandemic, there was little reason to move business online since the state’s farmers markets are so popular.

“One silver lining of this crisis is that it’s created an incentive to make a behavioral shift,” Crane said. “Once those habits are built, it will be normal for farmers markets to have online vendors keeping their product up-to-date.”

In 2019, Oregon’s farmers markets sold $63 million worth of products from 6,700 vendors.

“That’s 6,700 small businesses” that rely on farmers markets to operate, Crane said. “People think of farmers markets as cute, but collectively, they are also a significant cornerstone in Oregon’s agriculture industry.”

Cooperating small farms may make some COVID-19 changes permanent

Debi Engelhardt-Vogel recently expanded the meat subscriptions and by-the-piece selection she offers at her on-farm store near Kuna, Idaho.

Demand for Vogel Farms meats, eggs, milk and canned items substantially increased with the COVID-19 closures — which prompted some on-farm changes — and remains strong.

Engelhardt-Vogel, who also will introduce beef, pork and chicken bundles this fall, moved to increase her beef supply without expanding her mother herd.

She partnered with Arlington, Ore.-based Weatherford Ranches to bring calves to her small farm for finishing. The first four arrived Memorial Day weekend.

“I’m trying to fill a demand without going big,” Engelhardt-Vogel said. “They have the additional supply needed, so I will be able to monitor supply and go with supply and demand.”

Vogel Farms will also increase on-site pork production, she said. Grandsons Mike and Matt Lester lead the project.

“We’re going to probably triple the number of hogs we produce” to about 30 a year eventually, Engelhardt-Vogel said.

That decision, and plans to soon sell increasingly popular half and whole packaged hogs and cows, reflect strong interest in local food as well as greater awareness of the food supply chain, she said. “The meat supply was disrupted and it had a huge impact on supply. And people didn’t realize how fragile that is.”

Vogel Farms now must schedule meat processing with small-scale local providers farther in advance.

The farm’s meat and eggs are available on-site or through a separate company, Boise Milk, which offers home delivery. Engelhardt-Vogel expects food delivery and curbside pickup to stay popular.

Each August, she begins offering public U-pick harvest of tomatoes, peppers, flowers and herbs. She plans this year to seat customers and offer them breakfast before they form small, well-distanced groups for picking. She has canceled summer and fall hay rides traditionally offered on weekends.

Engelhardt-Vogel and Cathy Cabalo, of nearby Cabalo’s Orchard & Gardens, cooperate on projects through the year. They canceled the 12th annual Corn and Pickle Festival, which is typically on the second Saturday of August at Vogel Farms and draws up to 900 people.

This year, they will instead offer online video versions of the event’s popular classes on topics such as pickling. They plan to resume the festival in 2021, with a lavender garden among the new features.

“So much planning goes into these things,” Cabalo said. “You have to make the call early in the season. There are going to be some sad people, but we will survive it.”

Engelhardt-Vogel and Cabalo also may rework seasonal pumpkin picking and turkey pickup events that draw many customers at once. They are considering offering turkeys at a station reconfigured to encourage distancing, or by curbside pickup.

They may use prepaid sales to reduce wait times. Pumpkin-patch runs likely will see fewer people farther apart.

“I can foresee a great deal of the changes we’ve seen in the past few months continuing,” Cabalo said. Customer pickup of pre-packaged, prepaid orders is an example.

“It’s easier, and people are enjoying it,” Engelhardt-Vogel said of food pickup. “For people who feel at risk or continue to want to maintain a distance, it is a perfect option.”

Business booming at small meat plants, but some producers are in trouble

EUGENE, Ore. — At Mohawk Valley Meats, a small USDA slaughterhouse here, workers in  blood-splattered white smocks raced to package meats on a recent Friday.

Business is booming for small meat processors across the U.S. because of soaring demand for locally raised and processed meat and a glut of slaughter-ready livestock created when big slaughterhouses became hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks and had to shut down.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. In two days, we booked all of 2020. We have kill dates for September of 2021 for pigs that haven’t even been conceived yet,” said Denise Pohrman, the plant manager.

Many small processors say they are “thriving.” But some plant managers, including Pohrman of the Mohawk plant, say despite their gratefulness for increased business, they are concerned that their smaller-scale, already-existing customers have been swept aside by larger producers.

With some bigger slaughterhouses closed or slowing their production because of COVID-19 problems, many ranchers have turned to smaller processors. Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said even ranchers from the Midwest have sent truckloads of hogs to Oregon slaughterhouses.

Faced with new customers, processors say they have had to make tough decisions.

Some processors have dropped small-scale producers and accepted new, larger-scale customers — to make extra income, prevent wasteful livestock deaths and satisfy the nation’s demand for meat.

Other processors have remained loyal to their small producers, hoping to maintain long-term customers and keep them afloat.

“I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, but we have created victims in the aftermath,” said Pohrman of Mohawk Valley Meats.

Pohrman said she packed her calendar with new customers when calls flooded in and now regrets it because 20 to 40 regular customers call daily begging her to harvest their livestock. She said she will no longer accept new customers.

Many small-scale producers, she said, have already paid for slots at farmers markets for the year but will run out of meat before their next butcher dates.

Deck Family Farm in Junction City, Ore., which produces pasture-raised pork, lamb, beef and chicken, has worked with Mohawk Valley Meats 15 years but had its slaughter schedule “totally disrupted,” according to the farm’s poultry manager.

“I lay awake at night and don’t sleep,” said Pohrman. “I’ve apologized more than 10 times this week for allowing myself to become overbooked.”

Pohrman said her new customers, who are reacting to the crisis, are likely just temporary, while her existing customers will likely be with her long-term.

Bill Hoyt, a cattle rancher near Cottage Grove, Ore., and board member of the Oregon Beef Council, said he sympathizes with Pohrman’s dilemma but wonders if she’s making a mistake by turning away other producers.

“Denise (Pohrman) wants to help everyone and can’t say no to the little guy,” he said. “She’s got a heart as big as the plant. But the world has bigger needs right now.”

Thistlethwaite, of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said if small producers didn’t have slaughter dates lined up months in advance, that’s their problem.

“If you haven’t figured out by now when your animals are ready for harvest, then you have no business trying to be a midscale producer until you professionalize your relationships,” she said.

One Oregon meat plant owner who chose to remain anonymous agreed, saying many small growers call a week ahead expecting to get a slaughter spot.

Thistlethwaite said many small producers don’t know they have other options.

She encourages small producers to consider custom-exempt slaughter, enabling them to sell animal portions directly to consumers.

The USDA labels many small processors as “custom exempt,” meaning they are exempt from continuous federal inspections. Producers can sell portions of an animal — usually quarter, half or whole to customers. This is called selling live animals “on the hoof” as “locker meat.”

The other option, said Thistlethwaite, is “retail-exempt processing.” Retail establishments, such as grocery stores, may process and sell meat at the store. Limited meat can also be sold wholesale to hotels, restaurants or institutions. The animals must be slaughtered under USDA inspection but can be processed under Oregon Department of Agriculture inspection.

The catch is the producer must have a relationship with a butcher or know how to butcher. For that reason, said Thistlethwaite, this may not be an immediate solution.

Pohrman of the Mohawk plant said these exemptions fail to help producers selling to farmers markets, which require meat be both harvested and processed under USDA inspection.

In the past week, Pohrman has sent letters to the ODA, Gov. Kate Brown and others requesting an emergency exemption to help these producers.

Thistlethwaite said although big plant closures have caused disruptions, that’s not the driving force behind small processors’ sudden popularity. The bigger driver, she said, is demand. Consumers are eager for local food during the pandemic.

This craving comes after a long period of decline. Big meatpacking facilities have made meat relatively cheap in the U.S. and pushed smaller slaughterhouses out of business.

From 1990 to 2016, the U.S. meatpacking industry lost more than 1,800 slaughterhouses. The “Big Four” companies — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — came to dominate 85% of the industry.

Hoyt of the Oregon Beef Council said the nation’s meat infrastructure resembles an hourglass: on one end, producers and feedlots, on the other, consumers, with processors in the slender neck. Now, the neck is jammed.

“I think there’s a real need for more small processors,” he said.

But creating a local meat system isn’t simple. Industry experts say building and running a meat plant is expensive, regulations are complex and competition is tough.

Even so, Thistlethwaite said she hopes the pandemic will result in more consumers supporting local producers and processors.

“I suspect after this initial hoarding phase, the demand is going to slack off considerably, especially since we’re about to enter a massive recession,” she said. “But if people want local meat to last, I hope nobody expects any quick fixes. Consumer interest can’t just be a blip on the screen. That’s not the kind of long-term commitment farmers need.”