Virginia Cooperative Extension helps get food from the field to the table during COVID-19
By Devon Johnson and Max Esterhuizen
Virginia Cooperative Extension agents have long supported the agriculture community by helping producers address whatever issues arise. Now, Extension is continuing that history of helping by creating innovative solutions and digital tools designed to help farmers adapt to the unique agricultural challenges created by COVID-19.
Those issues range from disruptions to their normal markets, labor force, and overall business plan, and Extension is helping by facilitating new connections, providing online tools, and offering online education.
“Farmers who had contracts with restaurants, schools, or universities have had to shift their focus from those institutional market channels to direct-to-consumer sales with online eCommerce software, drive-thru and curbside service, and modified community-supported agriculture models,” said Eric Bendfeldt, Extension specialist and associate director for the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation. “Virginia food banks and pantries are also reporting a large increase in participation and increasing demand for fresh produce and shelf-stable meat sources.”
Extension is working to facilitate coordination among Virginia farmers and help them adapt to new or changing markets.
“We heard that two nonprofit members of the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition, DC Central Kitchen and Dreaming Out Loud, were having trouble sourcing protein to meet demand in the communities they serve,” Bendfeldt said.
Extension reached out to the Virginia Poultry Federation to inform their member organizations aware of this regional food security issue and are working to facilitate a connection between the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative and these other groups.
“Farmers need very quick solutions to disruptions in the value chain,” said E. French Price, Extension value chain coordinator. “If a farmer had been supplying lettuce to the local school system when schools closed, they might have had a huge amount of lettuce. We can help farmers with that kind of problem and quickly find an alternate market for that lettuce.”
Extension is also helping farmers by offering numerous webinar series, covering such topics as farm management during COVID-19, money management, purchasing, yield rates, and more.
A recent webinar covered production strategies, such as optimizing cattle given low market prices. There are minimal costs associated with maintaining a herd – essentially postponing the sale.
Through resources such as Virginia MarketMaker, Virginia Cooperative Extension is helping get food from the farm to the table.
“Extension is working hard to leverage personal and institutional connections to help farmers to get by financially as best as possible.” said John Bovay, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Bovay’s research involves economic analysis of policies and regulations affecting farmers and food consumers, including implications for markets, the environment, and human health.
His department released a report that addressed various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Virginia’s farm and agribusiness sector, including a general economic outlook, disruptions to the food supply chain, impacts on Virginia’s agricultural industries, and more.
Bovay’s portion of the report that addresses disruptions to the food supply chain found that the shift in consumer demand, such as panic buying, might be giving the perception of supply chain disruptions, but it is rather a shift in demand. The U.S. agricultural system should be resilient enough to cope with any disruptions.
What it can cause, Bovay said, is an incentive for farmers to waste food because of market disruptions, but in reality, it is just shifting where the food is lost or wasted.
To help alleviate the financial burden, Price has focused on the Virginia MarketMaker website, a multistate effort to connect growers with the suppliers and markets they need to successfully produce and sell crops.
“We’ve seen traffic on Virginia MarketMaker increase by 300 percent since stay-at-home orders were enacted in March,” Price said. “We’re seeing things like farmers whose normal seed supplier is out of stock looking for a local alternative or farmers who were left with a large amount of market-ready produce looking for a new place to sell it. With MarketMaker, we have an index of growers and markets throughout the state and we’re able to help make new connections to solve some of those problems.”
“We hope that the new relationships farmers are building and the increased attention to direct-to-consumer markets, like farmers markets or CSA, will continue beyond the pandemic,” Price said. “We hope these relationships born from necessity will continue and we will wind up with a more resilient food system.”
In addition to facilitating connections that get food from the farm to the table, Extension also supports farmers by providing education and training critical for producing profitable harvests.
“Normally, at this time of year we would have a variety of in-person events for fruit growers, including meetings held at Extension’s agricultural research orchards,” said Mark Sutphin, an Extension agent in Fredrick, Virginia’s top apple-producing county.
For the past 100 years, Extension has supported Virginia’s fruit growers as they navigate these seasonal challenges.
Sutphin, along with Extension specialists at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, have been able to transition much of their normal training schedule online, and are taking advantage of already-established digital communication channels to provide vital information to growers that assist with timing for tree fruit, a high-value, high-input crop. The online training sessions help address yield-impacting issues for the current season as well as the yield for the following season.
“Our Extension office has worked with local farms as they’ve passed from one generation to another. We’re continuing to provide resources, answer questions, and help growers get through the pandemic,” Sutphin said.
Extension offers a variety of resources for farmers, including:
- The Small Farm Outreach Program (SFOP), a part of Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University, educates and empowers small, limited-resource, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers to own, operate, and sustain farms and ranches.
- Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation, including a variety of COVID-19 resources.
- Virginia Cooperative Extension COVID-19 resource library.
“We are in a time of crisis. We’ve been working to give farmers, suppliers, and the public trustworthy information,” said Kim Niewolny, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and director of the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation. “We’ve been holding online learning circles, bringing people together – virtually – to hold conversations around what is happening in our side of the food supply chain, and these are open to all who are interested. Right now, we have agents, students, faculty, and community members coming together to talk about the food system’s needs today and tomorrow.”