Community-Based Farms Rise to the Occasion as Big Food Supply Chains Stall

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep craters in the U.S. food supply chain. Dairies that supply milk and food products to restaurants have had the heartbreaking task of dumping millions of gallons of milk. Many giant meat processing plants had to close down because their workers were getting infected by the virus. The shutting down of these plants resulted in millions of farm animals being “culled” by drowning, shooting and suffocating. The meat processing plants were ordered to reopen when the administration declared that it is essential to maintain the meat supply in late April, even as the death toll and number of infections continue to swell. Since April 22, there have been more than 32,000 COVID-19 cases and 109 deaths among food-system workers, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

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During the crisis, however, family-scale farms that are deeply embedded in their communities have been able to pivot nimbly to provide high-quality, locally grown and processed foods while keeping everyone — farm family, workers and customers — safe. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms are where customers become loyal supporters by signing up for weekly shares for the whole season to share the risks and benefits with the farmers, and during this time, they have retained old members and attracted new ones. By March 20, within days of the lockdown due to COVID-19, Massaro Community Farm, a nonprofit, certified-organic CSA farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut, was taking orders via email, and a week later, running a new online store — not only to sell winter greens from their own greenhouse, but also to offer products from neighboring farms that had lost markets when restaurants and schools closed.

“Farming through a pandemic has been an exhausting, but exciting, endeavor,” said Alyssa DesRosier, assistant farm manager at Massaro Community Farm. “The hardest part has been the lack of social connection. Our community is one of the biggest parts of our CSA; it’s part of our mission statement: Keep farming, feed people, build community.”

Steve Munno has been the farm manager since the start of Massaro Community Farm 12 years ago when he answered the call for a farmer who could organize a CSA farm combined with hunger relief and educational programs. Having trained at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and worked with the Food Project, Munno was excited to shape a farm that would combine organic farming with food justice. “The injustices of our world, my own privileges and the need to actively work for change were evident early on, so these are the initial seeds,” Munno said. “From there, over the years I got to study and work with people and at organizations where social justice was a pertinent part of the conversation or integral to the mission.”

The farm now has an executive director and a staff of eight, including an education director, a CSA with 250 shares, sales at local farmers’ markets and area restaurants. In addition to commercial sales, Massaro has made a commitment to donate 10 percent of all production to local hunger relief agencies. The farm has given away over 65,000 pounds of food since 2010 and has raised funds to pay for the donations and educational programs by organizing annual community-building events like an on-farm dinner and a bikeathon. Munno lives in the farmhouse with his young family, which includes his wife and two children, so farm safety also means family safety during the pandemic.

Masked and gloved people sort bins of carrots
At Massaro Community Farm, Alanna Gilbert, masked and gloved, washes and sorts carrots.

The farm takes its name from the Italian family that ran a small dairy farm with a flock of chickens from 1916 until the death of the last farming member in 2007, when the town of Woodbridge took ownership to protect the land. Some local residents wanted a baseball field there. But a larger and more persistent group wanted farming to continue, so they established a nonprofit that leased 57 acres from the town. The active board shapes the farm’s policies, supports educational programs and helps raise funds. Thousands of people have volunteered to participate in the farm’s many activities.

When Connecticut became a pandemic hotspot in early March, there were two other staff members who had been working with Munno through the winter. Together, they had to figure out how to keep the farm open and keep themselves and their customers safe. Lindsay Browning, who works in the farm office, had experience with Square, a mobile point-of-sale system for businesses, which they used to set up a store with online ordering and pickups at the farm.

Since farmer friends had lost their sales outlets, Munno added their offerings to the list. The farm has a mailing list of 3,000, so it was not hard to attract customers. Within a week, the farm was providing weekly pickups on Fridays that have continued ever since. They schedule customer arrivals at half-hour intervals — safe-spacing requirements — and the time slots limit the number of deliveries to 150. It takes Munno and his staff all day to bundle the produce that, during the second week of June, included strawberries, lettuce and leeks along with products from other vendors. Customers drive through the farm parking area, stopping at the barn where farm staff, who are gloved and masked, bring out the orders and place them on a table for no-touch retrieval or pop them into the car trunk.

Changing to meet this moment is a big effort, and expensive. “Everyone who works at Massaro Farm does so because we care about providing healthy food for our community,” said DesRosier, who is also a quilter and made cloth masks for the crew. “When I made masks for the staff, I sewed hearts on them to remind everyone that even though they couldn’t see our smiling faces, we were here for them and cared about them,” she added.

By mid-June, the farm had to spend over $1,000 on disposable gloves and extra packaging materials, but so far, no one on the farm or any of their immediate friends has gotten sick. Customers are very appreciative of the service.

Munno talked about the other things that are different this year. To meet the big surge in requests for CSA shares, they have expanded membership to 300. The Massaro CSA offers a 20-week farm pickup, and also a 10-week option, with the choice of any 10 weeks out of the 20 scheduled in advance so the farm knows what to expect. A lot of the CSA members are involved with the school system, either public schools or the university, and go away for a few weeks during summer vacation, so the 10-week option is convenient. The CSA makes up the bulk of the farm’s sales, around 75 percent, with the rest split between farmers’ markets and restaurants. On weeks when produce was light, Munno explained, they would sell less at the markets. In previous seasons, CSA pickup at the farm has been “market style,” where subscribers select their produce from bins that the crew sets out for them. This year, the farm will be bagging or boxing the shares, which is about 250 per week. There are 300 subscribers in total, with 170 of them picking up weekly and 130 picking up alternating weeks.

A worker in a mask holds a beautiful stalk of kale
Alyssa DesRosier, assistant farm manager at Massaro Community Farm, harvests kale.

With COVID-19, the farmers’ markets have changed their rules to require that all sales are ordered and paid for in advance, a system that does not work well for Massaro. It is a matter of logistics, Munno explains. Harvest for the CSA takes place three to five days a week, with what is extra going to sales for the farmers’ markets. In past years, Munno had a sense of what they would bring to market, but was able to make adjustments at the last minute to accommodate fluctuations in share numbers and production from week to week. This year, he would have to put the information online early in the week, confirm what they have, and receive and pack orders before going to market. He wants to support the other vendors, and going to market is a big social benefit for the family, but he and his staff are evaluating whether they can do it safely.

Munno expects minimal sales to restaurants this year. The basis for those sales is often relationships, but since Massaro has a higher price point than other providers, he thinks he will not get many orders.

By contrast, Munno hopes to be able to increase the amount of produce the farm donates for hunger relief. Demand is up, and he has had requests from new organizations like the mutual aid groups in New Haven. While the CSA does have a few shares that are purchased for donation, most of the shares go to people who can pay. Farm income from those sales covers operating costs, including staff salaries. The farm’s initial capitalization and money to buy new equipment and make major repairs depend on donations, grants from private foundations and state and federal programs. Like many nonprofits, Massaro will have to get creative this year to find substitutes for on-farm fundraisers.

To be sure of enough labor in case of illness, Munno plans to hire at least two extra staffers. Munno’s policy is to avoid reliance on volunteers or apprenticeships. He calls the employees staff and pays them hourly wages. They are slowly figuring out how to work together safely. Munno typically prefers working as a group to get things done, but this year they are breaking into smaller teams and making other accommodations by staggering lunchtimes, and using masks and gloves while harvesting as an extra precaution, not that different from their usual food safety protocols.

“I am grateful and privileged to be here at this moment,” Munno says. “I feel grateful that people are taking the safety protocols seriously. I don’t want to get sick — my kids, hundreds of people rely on us for food, and our staff for work. In farming, every year is different, but I am hoping for a particularly bountiful year. And looking forward, I hope the renewed interest in local produce will not be short-lived, and that the CSA will be full by winter, and [we will] not [have to] wait until May.”

Even before the pandemic, farm costs had been going up and all the new safety measures have added to the expenses. The extra price point Massaro Farm is able to charge for high quality, certified organic produce is still not enough, Munno says, to pay his staff what they are worth. “I don’t think any of my team is compensated enough,” he said. “We need to make larger changes so we can pay everyone better.”

While mainstream supply chains suffered major snags this spring, organic CSA farms like Massaro have been able to nimbly reorient marketing and production to serve the urgent needs of their communities. But these adjustments come with a cost: the additional investments needed to buy protective equipment, packaging supplies and to pay the fees for online services; and the emotional and physical wear and tear on the farmers and their crews. The first rounds of federal stimulus money have followed the usual well-worn channels into the bank accounts of the biggest industrial farms. In addition to farming, Munno (along with the author of this article) serves on the Interstate Council of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), a 49 year-old grassroots organization with chapters in seven states that has been a pioneer in championing local organic food, and is attempting to divert the flow into investments that support farms like Massaro. In a spring meeting with the New York congressional delegation, NOFA Policy Coordinator Steve Gilman urged Congress to provide federal hero hazard pay directly to frontline food system workers and businesses deemed essential during the pandemic. He also called for payments to organic producers to reimburse them for expenses such as personal protective equipment and pandemic-related facility, infrastructure, technology and staffing modifications, and to add flexibility to USDA nutrition programs to allow food banks to buy from local organic farms and food hubs and SNAP recipients to purchase online from farms.

Instead of returning to the discredited normal after the pandemic, Munno and his comrades in NOFA hope the new public awareness of food chain injustices and the extraordinary service that family-scale farms have been providing will build momentum for the localized, socially just, ecological and resilient farm and food system we want for our future.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.