Columbia’s Paul Grant has more people to sell to than he did earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the typical restaurant customers of his Freshly Grown Farms have reopened as South Carolina dining restrictions were lifted. But business is far from restored.
Prior to the pandemic, Grant’s 11-year-old farm supplied about 18 restaurants. Once the virus began to spread in South Carolina, he felt things could get worse and he began to prepare his farm for a decline in business, scaling production back by about a third. Now, the number of restaurants he sells to is down by about half, he estimates.
It’s not all doom and gloom — he notes a surge in the retail and grocery business that compliments his main revenue source, and his farm has also found ways to cut costs — but it’s not how he likes to get by.
“It doesn’t make up for the lack of sales, but it gets to a place where you can operate that way,” Grant shares with Free Times. “I can keep making it work, but I’m hoping that slowly things will start to get better, but if we have to keep going the same way we’ve been going, then we’ll keep going.”
For farmers in the Midlands and South Carolina at large, the pandemic slowed their industry in much the same way it did others. For small and medium-sized farms that supply local food systems — farm-to-table restaurants, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, etc. — their typical revenue streams diminished as the economy shuttered.
In an industry that’s grown too accustomed to adversity in recent years, COVID-19 presents yet another set of challenges. As is well documented at this point, the pandemic has wrought havoc on all aspects of the U.S. economy. In Columbia, life ground to a halt for two months, with dine-in restaurants and some other local businesses forced to shutter.
For farmers, whose workplaces were mostly socially isolated to begin with, they’ve been able to keep producing. But how are they selling?
With less restaurants buying, where does the pork go? With fewer farmers markets, where does the produce go? The two-way relationships that farms depend on have become glaringly one-sided.
Per a report from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the effects have been, unsurprisingly, financially devastating.
Through April and May, the North and South Carolina local farm advocacy organization, conducted a survey of 133 small and medium-sized farmers in the Carolinas to gauge the pandemic’s effects on them. The feedback painted a difficult picture.
76 percent of respondents saw a decline in weekly sales, with 34 percent of farms seeing sales decreases of greater than $1,000 per week. The report further elaborates on how damning these losses can be for farms of this scale
“Given that weekly revenues at these operations average out to be less than $500 per week over the course of a year, these COVID-19-related sales reductions were dramatic for small farms,” the association notes. “[It] suggests the pandemic will push many farms in this class to the brink of financial ruin.”
But hope remains. In interviews with Free Times, farmers across a wide range of experience levels spoke to the pandemic in terms best described as stubbornly optimistic. For those newer on the scene, they see the pandemic as a delay in their long-term plans and are using it to prepare themselves for future growth. Established farmers have found ways to adapt and cut costs, or create new revenue streams through online farmers markets or expansive CSA programs, wherein customers sign up to be restocked at regular intervals.
“The most important thing is to hold on for your business and being there when the things start to rebound,” Grant says.
Agricultural commodities are still in high demand — as bare shelves at local markets frequently attest — and there was an almost uniform consensus among the farmers Free Times spoke to that their work, and the local food systems they contribute to, is now more important than ever.
Grant says Freshly Grown Farms, which for 10 years has sold hydroponically produced lettuces and herbs, has benefitted from its established roots. While Grant’s sales may be down roughly 30 to 50 percent, he says it’s still better than where it was five years ago.
He doesn’t know a farmer who has decided to fold, saying that everyone is finding a way to work within COVID-19’s limitations.
“Farmers are a pretty stubborn bunch. By nature agriculture is sort of gambling,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen, you could have an absolute and total crop failure. … There’s a risk that’s inherent to being someone in agriculture.”
Adapting to the Times
Grant’s hydroponic farm lets him be more nimble than a field farmer would be in these times. He details that his operation has a six-week turnaround from planting to harvest, a far cry from the months-in-advance planning a traditional farmer would require — a boon given the present uncertainty.
“I can adjust real time what I’m planting,” Grant explains.
He’s considered ramping his production back up as the state’s economy has reopened, but he feels it’s better to play it safe and stay at a reduced level. Like many, he’s trying to adapt to the shifting landscape.
Josh Fabel, the owner of the relatively new Fabel Farms in Winnsboro, has found himself searching for new sales partners as his main source, farmers markets, have shuttered. As the markets reopen, marketgoers have had tepid interest in his wares, he says.
It’s a disappointment. Predominantly producing organic vegetables, he planned to grow double the amount this year. With that, he hoped to hire an employee to help, but has found scant interest, a difficulty he attributes that to COVID-19.
Among his plans to build his business, the part-time police officer says he intended to canvas the Vista dining and shopping district in downtown Columbia, handing out fliers to various restaurants and pitching his goods.
“I had set up my system to sell a lot before COVID happened,” he details. “What I experienced is the want is not there.”
Fabel’s attempts to pivot match those of others throughout the state. For some, the move’s been successful.
Nathan Vannette has been operating his Growing Green Family Farms since 2015 in Anderson and recently Greenville. Before the pandemic, his business made about 75 percent of its sales from restaurants or distributors. Now, that’s switched to about 50 percent, with the other half coming from selling directly to consumers. The farm expanded its CSA program from seven customers to over 50.
“Restaurants have rebounded a little bit, it’s still very constricted,” Vannette says. “We chose to pivot very hard to marketing direct to consumers.”
He’s hired four employees to help keep up with the new packaging demands incurred by the expanded CSA. After working solely with family members before, he calls the shift strange, as he feels a sharper sense of responsibility toward his staff.
Vannette adds that the pandemic is an incentive for them in other ways, pushing them to receive their good agricultural practices certification through the USDA, certifying that they’re handling food safely and tracing it.
The increase this has brought to sales is minimal, but he prefers to keep trying to make his farm better, as obsessing over the uncertainty would be unproductive.
“If anything I’m a little more worried now with future prospects, but the neat thing is I’m trying to channel the energy,” Vannette explains.
But as many farmers pivot to find new revenue streams, it remains to be seen whether the future will maintain that.
Chase Renninger, owner of Woodland Valley Farms in Jackson, has what he describes as a permaculture farm, or a farm that is self-sustaining and eco-friendly. The pandemic has accelerated what he feels is the future of farming business — direct to consumer sales.
His farm, in operation since 2016, was already focused on CSA sales and deliveries, along with generating other revenue through farmers markets, before the pandemic. Once it hit, though, Renninger and his partner and co-farmer Allyssa elected to go all in on CSA sales.
The move wasn’t a bad thing. He says that working the farmers market as a small operation was trying. He and his partner would both get up early and go to separate weekend farms, which meant they had to find help to man the farm in their absence.
And they’re not lacking for business. The farm’s CSA program has a months-long waitlist for people to join.
“For our business we had to increase our CSA members because we weren’t going to the farmers market,” he explains. “It was really the last push for us.”
But the pandemic is delaying some financial help they need to grow Woodland Valley, and Renninger also worries about the sustainability of their CSA growth.
“I mean, I feel a bit uncertain about things. … We both feel like it could go in a really good direction and we could get the hundred customers we really want,” Renninger says. “We could be heading towards an economic disaster right now and if that happens, people who were spending as much money as they were spending with us to get food might back out.”
He further explains that the pandemic has affected their ability to get their livestock in the slaughterhouse to sell. Renninger says the independent USDA-certified meat processor he works with is backed up with requests.
Renninger has various animals ready, but can’t get them in until January.
“It’s a financial suck on us when we can’t butcher these animals on time,” he offers. “They’re eating food no matter what.”
Brett Flashnick, owner of The Farm in Lexington, has taken on a “make the best of it” attitude in light of the pandemic. His farm is new, having started operation in 2019, and was gaining traction quickly.
Flashnick was selling to local restaurants, a butcher shop and direct to consumers at various markets. The pandemic changed much of that. After cover cropping, a practice meant to improve soil quality, he considered his options ahead of spring planting — could he risk investing in spring crops, potentially without a place to sell?
Flashnick elected not to. Instead, he’s further building out his farm’s infrastructure and continuing to learn more about the industry. It’s allowed him to save money that he worries might’ve been wasted.
“While COVID has thrown us a loop, it’s been beneficial for us to stay in our walk phase and figure it out,” he reasons.
As he aspires to build out his farm in the model of regenerative agriculture, a method of farming involves incorporating various natural systems working together, Flashnick feels COVID-19 has cemented his desire to work in that manner.
“This is pushing me in the right way to do things,” he says.
Woodruff farmer Lauren Campbell started her operation in 2018 and has been rehabbing the property, with plans to launch it as a full-time operation soon. In the meantime, the farm has used its space to host several honey bee hives, from which it harvests and sells to the community, alongside chickens and a small garden.”
She says it was a relief that their farm was not yet fully established when the pandemic hit. It’s given her time to scan the landscape. Now, Campbell’s plotting out her farm in a more conservative fashion, with plans to focus on selling direct to consumers rather than trying a larger-scale business model.
Campbell finds that COVID-19, for all its negatives, has highlighted the importance of area growers and their role in the food system.
“It’s exciting because I think a lot of people are more excited about locally sourced food,” she explains. “These are dying trades.”
Lowe is one of over 50 current attendees of a Clemson University Extension program centered on teaching new farmers the business side of farming, and Flashnick is an alum. Program coordinators connected Free Times with several participants and graduates for this story — many of which expressed that they feel more conviction in their decision to begin farming than ever due to the pandemic.
In Aiken, participant Shannon Lowe is attempting to start Just Real Life Farms on her family’s former farm. The property has since fallen into a mess of overgrowth, and she’s rehabilitating it now, hoping to bring a greenhouse to the property and start year-round growing through a dutch bucket system, essentially a variation on a hydroponic system.
A widow formerly married to a U.S. Army member, Lowe travelled to various parts of the world and saw food insecurity in numerous places. She hopes to make Real Life Farms and the tomatoes she’ll grow there a way to fight such issues and build up farming education.
“I want to make sure that people know they can be food-secure and how they can do that is by growing their own food,” Lowe explains. “There’s no limitations to how you can do it.”
She believes the pandemic will push people further away from the existing food system, instead prioritizing food where they know where it came from and can ensure it’s a safe product to eat.
“People need farmers and they see just how important farmers are now,” Lowe posits.
Need for Help
But while many area farmers are beating the drum of optimism, some industry experts see a more dire outlook.
The timing of the pandemic is difficult, explains Rolan McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. He says that 2019 was already shaping up to be a tough year for many farmers, regardless of scale or type or type of operation, and that the spring, when COVID-19 took hold, is when farmers begin to see an uptick in business.
“They start having more diversity of products, and so it’s kind of like when Christmas starts, right?” McReynolds elaborates. “People were expecting, were counting on a [bounceback].”
Stephanie Sox, director of the South Carolina Farm Bureau’s education and promotion division, explains the situation similarly, saying the pandemic follows a string of difficult events for S.C. farmers of all sizes.
She points to a variety of weather-related issues, referencing the state’s historic 2015 floods and other harsh meteorological events, as well as ongoing trade wars and low commodity prices. For her, the most damaging aspect of COVID-19 is the way it exacerbates these underlying issues.
“I feel like here in South Carolina our farmers just have had a particular brand of bad luck,” Sox laments.
The pandemic’s conditions have been met with some aid from the federal government, but it’s not enough, McReynolds explains.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is paying back farmers based on the particular crops or livestock that they had on hand from January to April. The reimbursement is based on commodities trade markets, where the prices are a far cry from the what small and medium-sized farms get when selling directly to consumers or restaurants. Thus, the payments don’t account for the real losses that farmers are facing.
McReynolds and his organization are now advocating for a modified aid system that he compares to farm insurance, where the reimbursements are based on a proportion of actual losses.
McReynolds says he worries about the future for many small and medium-sized local farms. Farm bankruptcies were already up in 2019 before COVID-19, a trend McReynolds expects will worsen this due to the economic slowdown, which would hurt the local food landscape in turn.
“There is fairly good reason to think that number is not going down,” he offers. “We definitely are very concerned for ag production in the local food capacity going forward in a lot of communities in the Carolinas.”
McReynolds says this potential loss of farms could have a “multifaceted effect.” Farmers markets would lose out on their robust offerings, farm-to-table restaurants would struggle to source and, perhaps most vitally, the area would lose these farmers’ unique knowledge of working the land.
Despite these concerns, Sox says the state’s farmers have been nimble and resilient in face of this year’s challenges.
Many horror stories seen throughout the country and world — mass dumping of produce, for instance — have been avoided here, she explains. Particularly with smaller-sized farms, they’ve been quick to find new ways to adapt and earn revenues.
“It really has been remarkable the transition our farms have been able to make,” Sox posits.