By Kimberly Cauvel
— Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, farms are facing more challenges than ever during the busy season, with their workers among the most vulnerable to the virus and produce reaching fewer buyers through usual markets, festivals and tourism outlets.
“The pandemic has been a very serious problem,” Save Family Farming Executive Director Gerald Baron said.
It’s exacerbating existing weaknesses — and inequalities for consumers who rely on schools, senior centers and assistance programs — in the local food supply chain, according to the Whatcom County Food System Committee.
“The inequalities that were present in our food system back in 2019 are even more dramatic with the impact of the coronavirus,” committee chair Riley Sweeney said.
The food system committee was created by the Whatcom County Council in 2018 to protect and strengthen the local food system, from seeds on the farm to meals at the table. The committee’s nine members represent farms, fishing, nutrition, natural resources, food processing, export sales, labor and food access sectors. They evaluate how well each sector functions as a piece of the food system puzzle.
Forcing some shape shifting
Usually local farms send much of their fresh food to area farmers markets, restaurants and schools, all of which are closed or limited in their services and sales because of the pandemic.
“Those existing systems have been disrupted by COVID-19 and if we don’t support and acknowledge those farms (we may lose local food security),” Sweeney said.
“One farm in Lynden was fairly dependent on cross-border traffic from Canada. Canadians would come down and buy milk in significant quantities,” Baron said.
While government programs have since helped dairy rebound some, those who grow produce may remain in trouble.
Call to action
The Whatcom County Food System Committee in July sent a letter to the county council detailing the food-related challenges worsened by the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19. It calls for local government action to help farms, as well as food workers and the community’s hungry.
“In the wake of the unprecedented dangers and impacts of COVID-19, we are recommending immediate action … to stabilize our food system,” the letter states.
The recommendations call for investing CARES Act funding into agriculture. They urge having adequate personal protective equipment, sanitization supplies and space for distancing for farmworkers in housing, fields and processing centers. And they call for increasing local food processing and storage capacity along with improving access to fresh local foods for those in need.
Many of the committee’s concerns are similar to those in a June 25 report from the Washington State Food Policy Forum about COVID-19 impacts to agriculture.
“Closures of food service, hospitality, and tourism sectors have caused immediate and ongoing loss of critical markets and revenue for farmers … The impacts are immediate and significant for farmers and ranchers,” that document states.
Given that vulnerabilities in the food system existed before COVID-19, the state-level organization suggests action now — such as proposed by the county-level committee — could go beyond pandemic recovery.
“The hope is that we respond to the immediate needs presented by COVID-19 to develop, reinvent, and reinvest in regional food systems in our state in ways that address long-standing vulnerabilities and build food security and resilience into the future,” the June report states.
Locally, Whatcom County’s Jed Holmes confirmed the local committee’s recommendations were received by Whatcom County Executive Satpahl Sidhu and the Whatcom County Council.
How they respond remains to be seen.
Financial support needed
Farmers busy in their fields often miss opportunities such as inclusion in Whatcom County’s “Economic Impact of COVID-19: General Survey Results” report, published in April. That leaves a gap in local data.
While farming is a major economic sector in Whatcom County, only 16 survey-takers identified themselves as working on farms — a “dearth of agriculture responses,” according to the report.
Allocating government funding to support farms is a major component of the Whatcom County Food System Committee recommendations. The committee calls for using federal CARES Act dollars earmarked by the state Department of Commerce for Whatcom County to leverage food system security and economic recovery simultaneously.
Whatcom County is eligible for $12.4 million in CARES Act funding according to a Department of Commerce distribution list, combined with another about $2 million made available to cities in the county. So far, none of that $16.3 million has been funneled to local farms.
“They have not specifically set aside money for our farms or our food system, so we are urging them to,” Sweeney said.
He said supporting farms — an industry valued at $373 million in the county as of the last U.S. Department of Agriculture census in 2017 — would also help the local economy prosper.
The county’s Holmes confirmed pandemic relief funding has not been specifically carved out for farms. But farmers were eligible for the county’s Whatcom ReStart business grant program that accepted applications July 16-31 for a $2.6 million pot of money. Awards of up to $15,000 per business will be announced Aug. 16, according to the program web page managed by the Port of Bellingham.
Some farmers have sought assistance from other sources to keep them afloat.
One program in which the American Farmland Trust offered $1,000 booster grants to small farms in need received 208 applications from Washington. About two dozen came from small farms in Whatcom and San Juan counties. Each described lost profits due to pandemic-prompted closures of farmers markets, restaurants and schools.
The local farms that reported the steepest losses were Bellewood Farms near Lynden, AJs Family Farm north of Bellingham and Amaro Farm on central San Juan Island.
They cited difficulties paying bills, having to lay off staff and needing to find new ways to reach customers.
“As our island is shut off from the mainland during the pandemic, we have no tourism … as local restaurants have been shut down, they are not purchasing,” Rami Amaro said in the application.
Meanwhile, concerns for workforce, student and senior health are also tied to the food system.
Sweeney said labor issues are particularly concerning for the county’s largest crops: dairy and berries.
“You get these congregate work areas where you have people shoulder to shoulder packing raspberries or preparing the milk, and it’s simply not possible to socially distance in those areas,” he said.
“We’re worried about our farm workers staying healthy and protected, we’re worried about our farms staying in business, and we’re worried about our vulnerable populations that aren’t able to get access to food through their usual systems,” Sweeney said.
There’s a tight window when fruit, such as Whatcom’s prized raspberries, are ripe for the picking and many farm hands are needed to complete the job. In an effort to protect farmworker health, the state issued rules in May for worker housing, restroom access, face coverings and distancing on the job.
Those requirements have taken extra time and cash difficult for small farms to afford.
“The costs that the farmers have had to endure have been pretty significant,” Baron said. “They are really having to scramble to meet these new rules.”
The committee is worried about the potential for COVID-19 to ripple through worker communities as it has in the Yakima region’s fruit-packing workforce.
“We don’t want Whatcom County to become the next hot spot,” Sweeney said.
The committee urges county officials to support Gov. Jay Inslee’s agricultural operations order and even more aggressive safety measures based on lessons learned in Yakima. Inslee’s order includes requiring farms and food processing facilities to provide workers with face coverings, handwashing stations with soap and water, and space to distance at least 6 feet apart.
Baron said farmers want to protect worker health, too, but aren’t happy about shouldering added costs while they can’t control what workers do — such as gathering in groups and ignoring distancing guidance — in their housing.
“Worker health is a primary concern for farmers … It doesn’t help a farmer to lose a valued worker in the midst of harvest,” he said.
From farm to table
There are also concerns about students and seniors unable to visit schools and centers where they typically receive meals.
“Senior centers are closed down and those provide vital meals for some of our most vulnerable,” Sweeney said. “Schools are also a huge part of our food system. For many of our students that is the only time they receive a lunch or a breakfast.”
An idea the committee penned to officials is to reestablish local food processing centers, which have been a missing link in the food system for years. There, local crops could be processed from bulk items into meal-sized components ready for distribution to those in need.
“If you have a giant tub of peas, you have to distribute that into 400 different sack lunches or containers (to serve students, for example),” Sweeney said.
Issues surrounding labor, producer access to processing and packing facilities, and consumer access to healthy foods are not new. They have been detailed repeatedly by the Whatcom Food Network for at least a decade.
The network is a grassroots group that complements the county committee. It similarly brings together farm, crop, worker, market and consumer representatives to identify — and iron out — kinks in the local farm-to-table system, according to its website.
That work began 10 years before COVID-19 arrived in Whatcom County. The gaps it identified and tries to deal with are with us today.
Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.