While many industries came to a halt during the early weeks of the pandemic, agriculture falls high on the list of those considered to be essential.
“Farmers have never stopped working,” says Clint Leach, assistant commissioner for external affairs/economic development with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “The impact of the pandemic depends on the type of farm. Smaller produce farms that used to sell to farm-to-table restaurants had to make some dramatic changes early on in the pandemic, with many of them changing their business model to sell directly to consumers instead.”
Some of the bigger produce operations that sell mostly to grocery stores weren’t affected as much. “But farmers who grow row crops like cotton, corn, and soybeans have struggled with market volatility,” Clint says. “Cattlemen, hog farmers, and dairies have all seen big shifts in customer base with schools closed. Overall, there’s just been a lot of uncertainty.”
That uncertainty has forced many changes in every type of farming operation and the distribution channels they use.
In Cayce, Justin Creech is the second-generation owner of the Cayce Farmer’s Market, which his father started in 1978 as a coffee stand that also sold vegetables. Today the market sits on the busy four-lane Charleston Highway. A wide variety of local farmers have long supplied the produce.
“We don’t physically grow anything. We have multiple farmers who grow just for us,” Justin says. “One of my farmers is 82 and in better shape than I am. He comes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as he has for more than 25 years. I have a peach lady I’ve known since high school. Some produce like avocados have to be shipped in.”
While his stock of local produce and plants has remained high, the way Justin sells currently is quite different from pre-pandemic days. And when Justin closed in January like he has always done, he debated about his normal spring reopening.
“We decided to reopen in March after lots of thought and consideration about not only availability of produce but, more importantly, the health and safety of our customers, employees, and family,” Justin says. “We had to think about people who are stuck at home. They still wanted flowers, and they were eating more at home. I just wasn’t sure if people would come out, but we decided it was time.”
Government rules, like mask requirements and suggested best practices, changed the entire way they sell at the Cayce Farmers Market. Justin started offering to-go orders with roadside pickup service. If customers didn’t want to go into the store, the staff would bring orders out to the parking lot.
Shoppers have long enjoyed being able to browse the tables piled high with produce. Justin’s dad’s motto about selling vegetables was “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap.” Yet, for the first time in 43 years, they are not providing bulk offerings.
Justin says, “No one wants to be digging through produce after someone else has touched it.” Thus, Justin began putting the vegetables in baskets. “People decide which basket they want, they bring the basket to the counter, and we put them in a bag. We then wipe baskets down before using them again. Employees have masks, and there’s plexiglass on the counter.”
Early on, only three or four people could enter the market at a time. In early June, Justin adjusted that number to six. “That was my rule. It was posted on a sign on the door. The sign also said, ‘Thanks.’ It was important for our customers to know we care. When we first opened back up, people were just the best. They thanked us for being open. It was very pleasant.”
Some people’s attitudes shifted as the quarantine went on, however. Justin says, “Now people are tired of this stuff. They are cranky. One day recently it was 99 degrees, and I was standing on the porch talking with people who were waiting to get in. I just wanted to say, ‘Thank you,’ and tell people that without them we have nothing.”
Going forward, Justin says some of the changes he has made will likely stay in place. “We have been doing $25 baskets. People can choose from a list we provide, and then we can take it to their car when they come to pick it up. This also opened my eyes to how much stuff gets touched. The pandemic has definitely changed things, like how much we touch money.”
Justin believes the situation will not get back to normal any time soon. What he misses the most is close contact with people. “I miss hugging the little ladies I’ve known since I was a kid. It’s hard not to be able to be up close and personal like before.”
While Justin faces one type of uncertainty on the distribution side, farmers who grow and raise agricultural products have their own set of uncertainties on the production side.
“Farmers are always having to make educated guesses about the future. ‘How many hogs should I raise? How many acres of soybeans should I plant?’ The pandemic has made that math even more difficult,” says Clint.
At Doko Farm, Amanda and Joe Jones spent the spring and summer figuring out how they would adapt to selling their pasture-raised heritage meats that include Buckeye chicken; Narragansett heritage turkeys; St. Croix sheep, which provide lamb and mutton; and Guinea hogs for pork. Doko Farm is a small family-owned operation in the Cedar Creek Community near Blythewood. The idea behind heritage farming means the meat comes from animals with a proven quality lineage.
Amanda says, pre-pandemic, her family had a robust pipeline for its livestock with a variety of outlets to sell their meat. “We have always been primarily a direct-to-consumer farm, selling to our community through on-farm sales and at local farmers’ markets. Raising heritage breeds of livestock has many advantages. Slow growth of our heritage breeds means healthy animals and flavorful products. Unfortunately, we have a lag time when trying to meet current demand. It takes time to breed, raise, and bring our products to market.”
Plus, a current shortage of USDA-inspected processors means inspection appointments are hard to get. “Because we raise heritage breeds, we can hold onto our animals that are ready to process for a bit longer until processing dates are available,” Amanda says. “This is still not ideal for our customers or our feed bill.”
Amanda and Joe also do more than just raise livestock. Doko Farm does a strong business hosting events and working with local chefs. Since March, the farm has had to cancel all of its school field trips, farm tours, and farm events, such as their Ag and Art Tour, for the year. Previously scheduled chef-driven farm-to-table dinners also had to be put on hold.
The couple also had to add new safety procedures for the meat products they still were able to sell. “Like everyone, we have had to put into place additional measures to protect our health and that of our customers,” Amanda says. “We offer on-farm, drive-through pickup of pre-orders, and we have implemented the use of invoices through Square so that customers can pay online to reduce contact even further.”
Amanda and Joe had to start planning early for changes in their operation that will impact their biggest season of the year: the holidays. This year, they are planning to accept online reservations for their Narragansett heritage turkeys.
While Amanda hopes the holidays are a bright spot for the farm, she is nervous about turkey sales this year. “The pandemic has fewer families gathering, and budgets are stretched. Worst case scenario, we will pivot and have some delicious ground turkey, sausages, legs, and wings available.”
Once this next round of meat is sold, the farm will not have more pork until 2021, and lamb and chicken will not be available until the summer of 2021. “It just takes time,” she says. “Our family has been eating a lot of vegetarian meals this summer while our inventory has been low.”
But Amanda can point to positives during the trying times of the pandemic. Her biggest surprise has been the support of their community and people’s dedication to purchasing from local farms.
“We were honestly not prepared. What we had in stock this spring would have usually been more than enough to supply our customers through the summer, but it all sold quickly, and folks were so appreciative of everything we had to offer,” Amanda says. “I am looking forward to feeding our community and seeing our customers again at the farmers’ markets in September.”
During the downtime caused by the pandemic, Amanda’s family has been working on the farm, keeping the livestock healthy, and investing sweat equity to be ready for what might be next.
“We also hope to expand our network of small farms with which we work and refer customers. No one small farm can feed our community on its own. It will take a network of small farms to do this,” Amanda says. “The pandemic has brought the fragility of our current industrial food system into sharper focus. It is my hope that we continue to support and expand small farms so that our communities can have increased food security going forward.”
Clint, too, is optimistic about agriculture in South Carolina and the impact that the pandemic has had on the state. “The biggest bright spot is that people are more aware than ever of where their food comes from,” he says. “The disruptions we’ve seen have made people realize that someone actually has to grow everything we eat. I hope our society’s connection to and thankfulness for farmers will endure even after the pandemic.”