A masked customer at the reopened Prescott Farmers Market in Arizona.
A masked customer at the reopened Prescott Farmers Market in Arizona.

When the pandemic began, some experts worried that the local agriculture movement might soon find itself on life support, especially as restaurants shut their doors, and even some farmers markets folded up their tents.

As it turned out, being small, local and nimble actually worked to the advantage of many sustainable farms. Still, scores of small farmers around the country find themselves floundering, creating an opportunity for philanthropists to save a way of life, and perhaps even transform agriculture and food security.

Many foundations, funder networks, and nonprofits have responded with relief funds and other programs in recent months, but leaders in sustainable agriculture identified tremendous needs and possibilities for funders in this field.

During the early stage of the pandemic—with agribusiness crippled by massive shutdowns, a disrupted supply chain and empty supermarket shelves—many small organic and regenerative agriculture farmers saw an unexpected jump in business. In fact, a boom in sales during the first part of the pandemic was recorded in farmers markets and direct-to-market meat sales by small sustainable farms from the Hudson Valley to the Arizona desert.

“It was bonkers around here,” recalls Kathleen Yetman, executive director of the Prescott Farmers Market in Prescott, Arizona, a nonprofit that pivoted quickly after the pandemic declaration to online sales of boxed produce distributed in a drive-through. “It was amazing. One beginning farmer went from making an average of $160 per weekly market to $940 per week selling produce boxes.”

Overall, in the first two months of the pandemic, she said, sales were anywhere from 36% higher to 82% higher. Although all the local farmers had to make adjustments during the crisis—including rolling out social distancing guidelines and revamping U-pick policies—she doesn’t know of any local farms that have closed as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

But those pockets of success may be the exception rather than the rule. While many farms that delivered CSA boxes or sold to local schools and hospitals held onto their markets, small local farmers nationwide who sold almost exclusively to restaurants and cafeterias were left reeling, with 80% to 100% of their business evaporating overnight. Even farmers who’ve survived fires, floods, drought, hurricanes and market fluctuations may not have the savings or markets to make it through a pandemic with no end in sight.

This is where philanthropy comes in: Can foundations capitalize on the rekindled passion for small local farms to support regenerative farming and sustainability—something with the potential to transform agriculture itself?

“I would like to think that sustainable agriculture would become stronger as a result of COVID-19,” said Robin Currey, faculty and director of the Master’s Program in Sustainable Food Systems at Prescott College in Arizona. The crisis won’t reduce the country’s reliance on toxic pesticides or directly move the needle on organic, she said, but it could inspire “greater respect for local farm economies and the need to conserve agricultural land.”

The pandemic woke up many Americans to threats in centralized food distribution and led to more support for local and regional economies, Currey noted. “Anything that foundations can do to capitalize on this and support the smaller-scale agricultural sector is good,” she told Inside Philanthropy. Since many small, local farmers lack the online presence and know-how they need to weather the pandemic, she said, foundations could support sustainability by helping them build up their client base through effective online marketing.

“These farmers are really busy being farmers, and the answer to growing the business is not always to get bigger,” Currey said. “Instead, they need support for infrastructure, marketing, customer support and getting set up on Twitter, Facebook, Hootsuite and other social media. This would allow the general population to get more engaged with farmers who use sustainable practices.”

A Heyday for CSAs

Farmers who managed to thrive during the pandemic are creating a model for others to follow. Yetman got an early edge by taking the virus seriously from the start. To keep everyone safe, she and her team closed down the physical farmers market immediately, and with the help of their diverse farmers, created an online market, advertising online boxes of produce and other add-ons, including eggs, cheese, meat, baked goods and jams.

The farmers market already had about 10,000 followers on social media, so its team capitalized on that readership by publishing a monthly newsletter to put the word out. “We didn’t know how many people would want the boxes, which contained more vegetables than the average market purchase, but the response was just incredible,” said Yetman. “They were such a hit that many frequently sold out within an hour of opening the store.”

Many farmers nationwide, hard hit by the sudden drop in restaurant business, reinvented themselves by selling at farmers markets or through community-supported agriculture (CSA).

In Minneapolis, Regenerative Agriculture Foundation Executive Director Mark Muller says that local livestock farmers have seen “an absolute explosion in demand.” In the San Francisco Bay Area, “chef’s farmer” Martin Bournhonesque was among the small organic growers whose restaurant income evaporated. But within 48 hours of the restaurant shutdowns, according to Eater, he pivoted to selling CSA boxes featuring greens such as stinging nettles, which he has marketed to adventurous home cooks with great success. In Homer, Alaska, Robbi Mixon, who heads up the Alaska Food Policy Council, and her colleagues worked with government officials to declare farmers markets “essential businesses” so they could remain open. Meanwhile, she said, small sustainable Alaskan farmers dependent on cruise ship excursions and lodges scrambled to make the switch to CSA boxes and online ordering platforms as those markets crumbled.

“It’s sort of a heyday for CSAs,” Evan Wiig of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers told NPR this May. He added that in the four decades the alliance has existed, it had never seen such a huge surge in membership. Wiig told me the growth in demand should encourage foundations to take community-supported local agriculture more seriously.

“We’ve always played matchmaker, linking up farmers with middlemen and connecting folks to new businesses,” Wiig said. “But once the supply lines were disrupted, it was like our matchmaking went on steroids.”

“Whole Farming Communities Losing Markets Overnight”

But the CSA market is no panacea for the crisis and beyond, Wiig cautions.

“The upsurge in community-supported agriculture has been great for a sliver of our farmers, but it’s just that, a sliver,” he told Inside Philanthropy. “It’s been very lopsided, and we won’t know for at least a year how many small farms may be forced to close due to the pandemic.”

Entire farming communities have lost markets overnight, he said, including around 80 small farmers in Sonoma County handled by one distributor who sold exclusively to restaurants and corporate cafeterias in the Bay Area. Farms supplying schools also took a hit. “As the economic downturn continues, we’re going to be seeing ripple effects for a long time to come.”

Wiig is grateful to see foundations stepping up to the plate on coronavirus disaster relief for small farmers, but he says much more is needed.

“We put out a fundraising appeal for small farmers, and foundations were among those who responded quickly,” he said. “We’d have donations of five dollars from individuals, and then get a $50,000 check from a foundation.” (The 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation were among the top donors.) CAFF, which advocates for small farmers in California at the state level and in Washington, D.C., raised nearly $280,000, which it distributed to farmers in grants of up to $5,000.

“The grants are small, but if it can help them pay rent or an employee for a couple months, it’s worth it. What’s sad, though, is that even to have given out small grants to everyone who applied to us, we would have needed over $2 million,” Wiig said. “We’d love to be able to go back and write checks for everyone who applied.”

Foundations working on COVID disaster relief can be most effective, Wiig says, by finding organizations they can really trust, those “that have direct relationships with people who need the help. That way, you will really save a lot of time and money.”

The Prescott Farmers Market drive-through produce box pick-up after the pandemic was announced.
The Prescott Farmers Market drive-through produce box pick-up after the pandemic was announced.

Relief efforts to small farmers upended by COVID-19 include the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), which started a relief fund financed by individual and business donors and the Community Foundation of WNC. The American Farmland Trust, which last year raised about half of its funding from individual donations and $2 million from foundation grants, distributed relief funds to 1,000 farmers nationwide (it continues to fundraise for that effort). And the Adirondack Foundation joined Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and New York State Health Foundation in awarding $225,000 in grant funding to support 20 local farms and 75 farmworkers in delivering emergency food packages with the long-term goal of building a local sustainable food hub.

Other organizations are offering no-interest loans. In California, for example, beginning farmers, immigrants, organic farmers and small to mid-sized producers can work with California FarmLink to take out COVID-19 Emergency Loans, no-interest loans of up to $20,000 payable over two years, with no payments for the first six months. FarmLink receives government, foundation and corporate funding, with backers including several banks, the 11th Hour Project, TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, Swift Foundation, and the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation.

Small Farmers Largely Bypassed by Federal Relief

Even modest relief funding, leaders said, may help many farms weather the crisis. Mixon of the Alaskan Food Policy Council said that a small grant from the Homer Foundation kept open a key Alaskan farmers market that would otherwise have closed. Her advice to foundations includes funding for place-specific needs during the crisis and beyond. Alaskan farmers may be surrounded by snow for months of the year, she said, “but we need more cold storage. Some Alaska Natives use traditional permafrost storage systems, but the permafrost is melting due to climate change.”

Mixon, who also oversees the state’s farmers markets, would like to see foundations support the watershed and sustainable fisheries, seaweed farming, and food entrepreneurship, as well as unglamorous farming infrastructure.

“Alaska is two and a half times as big as Texas, but much of it is inaccessible by roads,” she said. “We need to bolster our ferry and air systems to better get foods to market. I think the pandemic was a wake-up call. It showed us how badly we need to improve our own food security. Besides forestry and tourism, we don’t have any sustainable industries except fishing, and even then, much of the product is exported. Homer is the world capital of halibut fishing, for example, but here in Alaska, I have a hard time getting my hands on any seafood!”

Foundation support is also crucial since federal relief efforts have largely bypassed small farmers, especially the federal CAREs Act, which earmarked billions in disaster relief for farmers who lost direct markets. “These programs are not really set up for small farmers,” Wiig said. “They’re for people who, say, own 20,000 acres of land and have a single crop, not a couple that own two acres and have 20 crops sold at a variety of markets.”

For example, the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program—which used CAREs funding for direct relief to farmers and ranchers—was aimed at agribusiness, according to the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation. Even CAREs’ popular food relief initiative—USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, which pays farmers and ranchers to send fresh produce, dairy and meat products to food banks—has shut out many small farmers.

There are scattered success stories, including Kaua’i’s local farmers food box distribution and USDA family food boxes from Vermont’s Deep Root Organic Co-op, which includes 24 member farms in Vermont and Quebec. But those wins appear to be few and far between.

“I don’t know a single small farmer in Alaska who benefited from the USDA farmer-to-family food box program, although several small local farmers here applied for it and were turned down,” said Mixon, whose farmers market reopened in June. Wiig had a similar observation, noting that the program was tailored to large producers and that his California nonprofit “hadn’t seen any of that money going to small farms.”

Along with the government, foundations have supported the nonprofits and businesses feeding hungry Americans during the crisis. The roster of grantees includes giants such as Feeding America (backed by individual and corporate donors, along with foundations like Kresge) and Second Harvest, as well as newcomers like Everytable, which we wrote about this March, and Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (funded by Rachel Ray Foundation and others). The Korean-American founder of RLC, Robert Lee, even shifted his business model to meet the demand for pre-made meals by feeding Black Lives Matter protestors.

It’s crucial to combat hunger, of course, but Wiig urges foundations not to neglect small local farmers who clearly need help. “Sooner or later during this crisis, many farm families will be gathering around the table, saying ‘How much longer can we keep doing this? Do we have to close, stop leasing, or sell our land?’” he said. “And that’s bad for all of us, since farmers and farmworkers are truly essential workers. Without them, there’s no food.”

He also worries that funding for long-term sustainability is being neglected. “It’s really unfathomable, the mass re-appropriation of public funds that is occurring now,” he said. “Before the pandemic, the country had all these forward-looking initiatives, such as climate-smart farming, to help us prepare for a climate crisis. Of course, the government may not be able to fund, say, regenerative soil projects right now, but foundations could. They could continue to back these long-term, forward-thinking initiatives so that all that momentum won’t be lost.”

Beyond the Coronavirus

One challenge is the encroachment of agribusiness into local markets formerly dominated by small producers.

“The COVID-related disruptions in corporate supply chains have created a wonderful uptick in demand for local foods,” said Muller, who worked for the McKnight Foundation before heading up the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, which we profiled this January. “But it also creates challenging ripples. In the Upper Midwest, after the corporate meat processing plants shut down due to COVID outbreaks, large livestock producers started using smaller, local processing facilities, sometimes squeezing out availability for the direct marketing farmers.”

His foundation helped convene a network, Funders for Regenerative Agriculture, that has developed a pooled fund for organizations supporting farmers and ranchers battered by the pandemic. Members of FORA include the Walton Family Foundation, TomKat Charitable Trust, the 11th Hour Project, and Cedar Tree Foundation. In addition, RAF is working to minimize the time required of grantees to apply for grants, as well as renewing existing grants as much as possible.

“We really appreciate the effort of several foundations to increase payouts during this crisis,” Muller said. “We’re hoping that private foundations will consider giving past their 5% minimum payout requirement.”

Muller also notes that the RAF, like many funders and nonprofits, has been moved by the protests after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans. “A key component in what we are trying to do is to put racial inequities front and center and ensure there is racial justice in farming,” he said. “Whether it’s the easy way or the hard way, it’s an issue that must be addressed.”

Wiig echoed these sentiments.

“We really have two crises right now: the pandemic and a racial justice reckoning,” he said. “It’s readily apparent in the food and agriculture community, which is asking itself, ‘Why are agricultural boards almost all white? Why do whites own 98% of our farmland, while agricultural workers are generally low-paid people of color? Why are we not addressing these historical inequities?’”

Wiig wants to see greater access to farm ownership for people of color, along with living wages for people working in the sector.

“Why can’t we create pathways for Latino farmworkers in Salinas to buy a small farm? Why can’t we set up an infrastructure so Black gardeners in Oakland can earn a living wage?” he said.

“We need to hire more people of color in agriculture—not as tokenism—but to put them in positions of power and influence, and that’s where I think foundations could do a lot of good.”

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