Farm-to-table dining takes on new meaning amid pandemic

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Eric Pray is used to shipping seafood all over the country. But since the coronavirus took hold, he shifted his focus closer to home — selling lobsters from a homemade tank in his garage.

Pray, of Portland, Maine, is one of hundreds of fishermen, farmers and food producers who shifted to a direct-to-consumer model amid the virus outbreak.

The pandemic stressed and sometimes disrupted supply chains, shuttered restaurants and changed the way consumers buy food, leaving some producers scrambling for a new way to reach their customers.

The farm-to-table movement in the United States (US) has grown in recent years, as consumers increasingly demanded locally sourced food.

But in the past several weeks, the movement has grown out of necessity because some producers cannot rely on the complex web of processors, distributors and middlemen to get food to customers.

For some, the challenges turned into opportunities — and new customers.

“When restaurants reopen, we’ll probably keep doing home delivery, because we’ve got a good base of customers,” Pray said.

But it’s not good news for many of America’s food producers. In late April and early May, US beef processing capacity was down 40 per cent from last year, according to Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University Jayson Lusk.

From meat to seafood and produce, farmers and fishermen lost their restaurant business amid the coronavirus shutdowns and had to pivot quickly to sell more to stores or directly to consumers. PHOTO: AP

Plants are now mainly back online but at reduced capacity with beef plants running about 10 per cent to 15 per cent below last year, he said.

Some sectors also suffered reductions in value, in part because the restaurants they normally rely on are closed. Live, 1.25-pound lobsters were worth USD6.74 per pound in the Northeast in April, which was 13 per cent less than a year ago and 37 per cent less than two years ago.

“The two biggest problems are facilitating distribution throughout the supply chain while protecting worker health, and revamping food demand in a way that avoids further disruptions,” said a professor in the Department of Economics at Tulane University
LaPorchia Collins.

Before the pandemic hit, Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, had been selling most of its pasture-raised meat and poultry to upscale restaurants, including ones started by famed chef Rick Bayless, as well as to cured meats shops.

Then, practically overnight, restaurants and shops shut down, drying up the farm’s business.

The farm has been able to switch to retail packaging and selling the meat and poultry elsewhere but it’s been far from easy, coming after endless hours of work by the family and employees, said Greg Gunthorp. That involved changing the labelling, adding bar codes, and cutting and packaging portions rather than selling in bulk.

“It’s been way, way too much work, way more changes. We made more changes in the first two weeks than we had planned to make in two years,” he said.

Templeton Farm, a small grass-fed beef farm in East Montpelier, Vermont, lost its biggest business — two restaurant accounts — when they had to shut down.

But around the same time, the phone starting ringing with people seeking locally raised beef, said farmer Bruce Chapell.

“Since then, our beef sales have been off the charts,” he said.

PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Illinois, this season doubled its consumer supported agriculture, where customers pay up front for produce throughout the season to 322 members, said Katie Bishop, one of the farmers. And it has about 75 on its waiting list, she said.

However, it was unclear whether this new model will be sustainable once the coronavirus crisis passes.

Food products that are heavily dependent on restaurants, such as seafood, eventually need those customers back, said John Sackton, an industry analyst and publisher of SeafoodNews.com.

But for now, selling direct to customers is a way to get a better price for those products than they would typically see, he said.

Pray, a Maine fishermen for three decades, said he was managing to make ends meet so far, but it will be more of a challenge the longer restaurants and processors remain inaccessible.

One of his customers, South Portland anesthesiologist Stephen Harden, said the appeal is as much about helping neighbours as buying great food.

“My wife and I sort of felt it was our duty to support locally as much as possible,” he said.

“And of course, the food is much better quality.”