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.”