COLUMBUS, Ohio—Buy local foods. The supply is there, despite what you might see in some grocery stores.
That’s the message many local farmers, growers, and livestock producers want consumers to know about food-buying options as the nation continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions with food processing and distribution link breaks in much of the food chain system nationwide, one segment of the food system that has worked by adapting quickly to overcome these challenges is the local food system.
Local farmers and livestock producers are continuing to plant, harvest, and market food directly to the public allowing consumers to continue to access locally produced fruits, vegetables, poultry, meat, and other food products, said Christie Welch, direct food and agriculture marketing specialist with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
That’s allowing consumers to still have access to all of the locally produced foods during this growing season, although there will be changes in how consumers interact with these farmers, Welch said.
“While much has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, what hasn’t changed is that Ohio’s specialty crop farmers are still farming, and you’ll still be able to access safe, healthy, and locally produced foods,” she said. “Ohio farmers and livestock producers are still working to provide local foods in abundance.”
However, Ohio farmers have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, because of school and business closures combined with stay-at-home orders, Welch said. As a result, livestock producers and seasonal produce growers immediately needed to adapt business, planting, and harvesting plans in response to radically shifted markets and public health concerns for worker and consumer safety.
To help these essential food producers as well as consumers, CFAES convened a working group and a task force in March. These groups help address the needs of specialty crop growers and livestock producers.
The COVID-19 Crisis Working Group for Specialty Crop Producers was convened to understand the impact of the pandemic on Ohio’s small- to mid-sized producers who sell to a range of direct markets, restaurants, institutions, retailers, and wholesale outlets. The CFAES Lean on Your Land Grant Food Supply Chain Task Force was convened to help livestock producers, some of whom sell to the same outlets.
Composed of Ohio State University Extension personnel, farm organizations, commodity groups, and farmers, the task force and the working group have since worked to gather the facts, identify challenges, provide guidance, answer questions farmers and producers are facing, and provide direct support to farmers, producers, and the public where needed. OSU Extension is CFAES’ outreach arm.
For example, the COVID-19 Crisis Working Group for Specialty Crop Producers is working with The Ohio State University Fruit and Vegetable Safety Team to provide science-based recommendations to Ohio farmers on the best operating practices for farms and farmers markets during COVID-19, the exploration of online sales platforms, how to serve as a conduit for information coming from food regulators in Ohio, and sharing information about disaster assistance for Ohio’s food producers.
The group, which convenes weekly, has released resources including fact sheets, webinars on COVID-19’s effect on produce safety; reaching new markets; pivoting to new marketing platforms; navigating new government programs for small businesses; and guidance for farmers markets, produce auctions, and you-pick operations to practice good hygiene and social distancing while doing business.
“Ohio’s farm operations are essential businesses providing essential products and services,” Welch said. “It isn’t business as usual, but our produce growers are modifying business operations using researched-based best practices to keep those on the farm and customers safe while meeting the growing demand for local, fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Local food is more essential now than ever, and local producers will continue to supply healthy foods in abundance, all season long.”
As for the CFAES Lean on Your Land Grant Food Supply Chain Task Force, it is working with livestock producers and meat processors, directly addressing needs specific to each segment, said Lyda G. Garcia, a CFAES assistant professor of meat science. That work has included problem-solving and connecting farmers and producers with personal protective equipment, she said.
As meatpacking plants across the country have had to shut down fully or partially due to employees sick with COVID-19 or concerned about catching the virus, farmers have had to keep their fully grown livestock on the farm, though the animals have been ready to go to market. In some cases, farmers in Ohio and nationwide have had to begin reducing their flocks or herds by euthanizing them.
“However, euthanizing is not the preferred answer,” Garcia said. “Other steps, such as slowing the animals’ growth rate while keeping them healthy, is a step we have implemented with producers.”
With an estimated 3.5 million livestock produced in Ohio, and an estimated 400 meat and poultry facilities statewide, meat production remains a critical necessity, she said.
“Many livestock producers have been left scratching their heads, feeling frustrated and scared, trying to figure out what to do with their animals,” Garcia said. “Some producers have turned to local meat processors to help alleviate some of these worries.”
That’s opened the door for more local Ohio beef, poultry, and pork products available for consumer sales, she said, noting that there are 366 state and federally inspected meat facilities statewide that have retail stores where consumers can buy local meat and poultry directly.
“We’re not going to run out of meat, although there will be some reduced options and prices may temporarily increase, but we won’t be here forever,” Garcia said. “Buying local helps Ohio farmers and producers, helps local economies, helps secure local jobs, and increases food transparency because it’s easy to trace the origin of the meat that you are buying.
“Buying from a local meat processor also helps local livestock producers and farmers to put more animals through the system, which in turn helps to increase the local meat supply for consumers. That’s why buying local matters. You can still buy a quality product whether you are in a rural, suburban, or urban area. These retail stores have locations throughout Ohio.”