Farmers face unprecedented pressures heading into 2021

Local Food Farmer Caucus: Pressures Report

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois direct market farmers face new challenges while navigating pressures they experienced long before the global pandemic.

Like many of us, local food farmers have had to adjust to social distancing both personally and professionally, maintaining their business dependent on direct relationships with consumers, chefs, and farmers market shoppers while keeping themselves, farm labor, and customers safe. To add to the puzzle, children are at home remote learning and some farmers are now stay-at-home teachers while trying to run a farm and business.

Farmers came together the first week of December for the kick-off of the Local Food Farmers Caucus, a group of Illinois Stewardship Alliance farmer members who sell directly into local markets, to share the pressures they experience and begin to organize for solutions that will support their farm businesses and grow Illinois’ local food economy.

The Caucus will function as a group of farmer leaders who identify, discuss, prioritize and campaign around policy issues in the local food system. An important step to identifying issues is discussing and sharing stories as a group about how things are going. During the Local Food Farmer Caucus Kick-Off Event, more than 60 farmers came together and shared about the challenges they face currently.

Today many of these pressures stem from the COVID-19 pandemic. Balancing farm, family and remote e-learning was amongst the top issues identified by farmers and was shared widely by the group. Other pressures related to climate change, burdensome regulations and the meat processing bottleneck were amongst the many challenges facing farmers despite the COVID-19 pandemic. A few examples of the issues can be found below:

1. Balancing farm and family with remote, e-learning

Jill VonderHaar of Mainstreet Pastures in St. Rose, IL told us about the decision she made with her husband to keep their kids home from school in order to ensure their family remains safe and keep their pastured meat and egg business running:

“Chad and I, being both self-employed decided to keep kids home for the entire first quarter because if we would’ve been quarantined, we wouldn’t get paid. So, for us, it was a business decision.”

Jill VonderHaar

Nearly a third of the other farmers participating at the Local Food Farmers Caucus Kick-Off agreed that balancing remote e-learning with farm and family life was one of the biggest challenges they are facing right now. Stories similar to this and related to mental and financial stress were also shared amongst the group.

2. Extreme weather caused by Climate Change

Amongst the many pressures of COVID-19, farmers are still dealing with the challenges presented by climate change and extreme weather events. Jason Halm, Farm Manager at Green Earth Harvest in Naperville, explained his battle with flea beetles on his brassica plants this summer after extreme temperature changes:

“…we had huge issues growing any sort of greens between June and the end of September, when the heat finally began to abate: flea beetles, which thrive in hot and dry conditions and on stressed brassica plants that do better in cooler temperatures, were worse than I’ve ever seen them.”

Jason Halm

3. Livestock Processing Bottleneck

Another issue shared widely amongst farmers at the Kick-Off was the meat processing bottleneck. Since March, farmers have reported a backlog in processing dates at their local processor, forcing them to either search elsewhere for a processor and add hours of travel time for a few animals or continue to feed animals and potentially miss the opportunity to slaughter. Jackie de Batista at Irish Grove Farms described her experience searching for 2021 processing dates after completely selling out of her frozen inventory within 48 hours in the Spring of 2020 stating,

“I called in August for butcher dates for 2021 and was told there were none available- how do you balance this as a beef farmer? There is no realistic way to pivot a slow food animal. Processing has been an issue in the past, it’s just worse this year.”

Jackie de Batista

Tim Roth of Living Light Farm expressed similar concerns as he grows his new livestock farm during such an unpredictable year:

“It has been a very challenging time to get slots and knowing how to plan ahead of time. Being able to find ways to process on the farm legally and send product to stores would be a big help.”

Tim Roth

Meat producers of all types shared frustration and concern related to the processing issue, many of whom called for alternative processing methods such as mobile processing units or allowing field kills to help address the bottleneck.

You can view the full list of challenges, pressures or issues mentioned by farmers below.

The Local Food Farmer Caucus will continue to serve as a space for farmers to convene, share stories, discuss issues, strategize policy solutions to campaign around and build community relationships. Identifying this list of pressures is the first step in building a farmer driven, state-wide local food policy agenda. The group will prioritize issues to campaign around that are winnable and have clear decision makers amongst other criteria.

If you’re a farmer interested in discussing these issues further, or have other issues to add to the list, please consider joining the Local Food Farmer Caucus. To join, email kathleen@ilstewards.org.

Pressures farmers’ face

COVID impacts:

  • Demand extremes for local foods – farmers need consistent demand for planning   
  • Balancing farm and family with remote learning   
  • Mental health has been a large challenge this year due in part to Covid, but I think it is just bringing some of the mental health challenges to the surface.   
  • Changes in farmers market procedures and inconsistency in rules. Doing well despite obstacles!  
  • Crushing financial pressures right now stressfully anxiety ridden but it’s the most exciting time in my life 
  • Customers not buying as much because of lost jobs       
  • New farms not eligible to COVID relief funds     
  • Pandemic/social isolation created more pressure on farm to be a positive place for farm crew (I think we were able to do it).. also learning how to scale up appropriately….yikes 3
  • We are shutting down for winter. However, we faced a flood of requests for products mid summer and had to ramp up production, supplies and labor in order to meet demands. But no increase in funds :(.
  • Covid has changed how we bring food to market. Cost of packaging and labeling has increased
  • Beginning farmers that are struggling are not eligible for Covid relief because they don’t have data to show losses as this is their first year 
  • Staffing challenges especially since COVID
  • Covid shutting down restaurants
  • Decrease in traffic at the farmers markets
  • Backorders on seeds and chicks

Growth / business operations:

  • I am struggling to find funding to explore expansion opportunities. (grants, preferably, or loans)  
  • Adapting sales models for a unforeseen future 
  • Making financial risks in such an insecure time  
  • Scaling up, systems to do so    
  • Marketing and efficiently managing a home delivery system       
  • I need to find access to markets for beginning farmers and identifying ways for new farms to bring in money through product/services that they can generate while they develop their farms – this could be cottage food operations 
  • We have a hard time finding farmers to sell at a new/urban farmers market.       
  • Getting customers to regularly order in “off season”      
  • Knowing where to start! It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as a farmer-in-training. 
  • Pivoting to new sales models
  • Access to capital for infrastructure improvements
  • Need for more training for how to shift business to online (social media, email lists, online store)

Livestock Processing:

  • Access to Processing  
  • Mobile/traveling red meat slaughter    
  • Locker capacity  
  • Processing dates and options  
  • Processing animals      
  • Extreme meat processing bottleneck   
  • Lack of flexibility (chicken/turkey) or access (waterfowl/rabbit) inspected processing options    
  • Mobile Processing       
  • Finding a processor who’s willing to butcher lambs and just a basic lack of USDA inspected processors in general.

Farm life balance:

  • Mental stress 
  • Farm life balance (or lack thereof)        
  • Crushing financial pressures right now stressfully anxiety ridden but it’s the most exciting time in my life 
  • Mental stress 
  • As a small operation, we have less pressure than most to maintain ourselves. Things are going okay. 
  • Sleep deprivation

Expand cottage food:

  • With limited space at farmer’s markets, it would be nice to have alternative options for value added products made under Cottage food act  
  • Limited avenues of where to sell Cottage Foods.  
  • Limited sales avenues for cottage foods. 
  • Need policy to support farmers to convert pasture to organic grain production instead of traditional row cropping 
  • Shared kitchen regulations are a huge barrier for cottage food business

Climate:

  • Hottest summer ever in Chicago (literally) created tons of pest pressure
  •  New pests due to Climate Change! 
  • climate extremes

Healthcare:

  • Health Care    
  • Access to health care – in particular mental health care

Pesticide drift:

  • Pesticide drift on bee operation 

Rural broadband:

  • No internet or high speed internet access

Land access:

  • Access to farmland

Hemp:

  • Processing for hemp grain, support for hemp food and fiber farmers    

Urban water access:

  • Water access for Chicago and new city ordinance making it harder to access water at growing sites