As our collective sense of normal gets redefined daily due to the coronavirus, we find ourselves having to create new systems of caring for one another. Governor Mike DeWine and Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton have taken proactive steps to manage the coronavirus in our state, including banning all gatherings of 50 people or more and closing restaurants, except for carry-out services. This means the Chesterhill Produce Auction (CPA) had to cancel our March 14th auction and will likely have to cancel auctions in the foreseeable future.
For a majority of CPA growers, the auction is their primary market and the backbone of their livelihoods. The CPA is also a primary market for many of our customers who attend weekly to buy fresh produce. One customer wrote on Facebook, “My bulk produce comes from here… I estimate I canned around 600lbs of tomatoes I got there last year. I hope we have a good growing year this year!”
Fortunately for our small farmers, local food systems are often more resilient than global food systems that rely on exports in order to survive. As Ben Lilliston, interim co-executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said about global food chains, “Our farm policy … makes us require this global market. We have to continue to export at high levels and grow exports in order for the farm economy to work. So we’re vulnerable to these kinds of disruptions.”
Because direct-to-consumer farmers rely on local customers, they are less susceptible to international trade disruptions and better positioned to lean on their community for support. That being said, as individuals lose work and restaurants close their doors, farmers are also losing regular customers and a large portion of their sales.
One of our CPA growers recently said to me, “Well, we’re going to keep putting seeds in the ground because whatever happens, we’re pretty sure people will need to eat.” He is right. While this health crisis is sending shock waves through our food system, we still have local farmers putting seeds into the ground and communities needing to eat. The task before us is to get creative, work together, and fall back on the strength of our community.
Here are some ways that our community is already responding:
- Many non-profits, food banks, schools, and local businesses are working together to make sure that people have access to food and farmers have access to markets. Many schools are offering grab and go breakfast and lunch. United Campus Ministries offers a grab and go supper every Thursday evening. Other local restaurants are offering free sandwiches during lunch. Here is an ever-evolving list of local resources for food, social services, small businesses, and education. This is a “view only” document that is updated daily, so keep checking in.
- Rural Action is hosting the COVID-19 Athens County Response Fund, to be used by “local businesses, farmers and community-based organizations in Athens County to address the immediate impacts of this region’s coronavirus outbreak.” Already, over $10,000 has been raised by 220 people. Apply for funding relief through this application.
- The group Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio is busy gathering resources and information from individuals who want to cook for neighbors, share extra supplies, provide transportation, offer elderly and childcare, and give anything else they have (yoga classes, data collection, tutoring, garden help). You name it, someone’s there to give it.
- Community Food Initiatives continues to operate its Donation Station and is available for pickups and some deliveries. They recently wrote on Facebook about the donations they’ve been receiving, “Your donations will support our local farmers and feed local folks during this time of exceptional need. We’re so grateful and proud to be part of a community where there has been such an amazing response. As everyone is very aware, the need for food access is growing. We’ll be at the farmers market as long as it remains open, and will buy directly from farmers if purchases at market aren’t possible.”
- As of now, the Athens Farmers Market remains open. The Athens Farmers Market wrote on Facebook, “Continuing to provide fresh food is our goal, but keeping our community and vendors safe and healthy during this time is our highest priority.” Heads up, the River City Farmers Market in Marietta has closed.
- Rural Action is helping farmers to get zero interest, zero fee farm loans from Kiva. Kiva is a nonprofit micro-lending service that helps farmers crowdfund projects and receive loans up to $15,000 at no interest. As a Kiva trustee, Rural Action can endorse loans and provide part of the loan amount to jumpstart the crowd-sourcing and get the loan money to the farmer as fast as possible.
And here are some ways that you can support this community:
- Reach out to the farmers you typically buy from — they need your business now more than ever. Sign-up for a CSA share. Seek out local farmers who have online stores. Or simply contact your farmer to see about delivery options — farmers practice safe handling practices every day, they will know how to get food to you in a safe manner. If you need help getting connected to a specific farmer, let us know and we’ll connect you.
- Donate to COVID-19 Athens County Response Fund to support local businesses, farmers and community-based organizations seeking economic relief.
- Donate to any of the community organizations on the frontlines, listed in this spreadsheet. The Donation Station at Community Food Initiatives needs your support to continue getting fresh food into the hands of those who need it.
- Add your name and what you can offer to the Southeast Ohio Mutual Aid spreadsheet. Seek someone out on this spreadsheet if you have a need that could be met.
- Purchase gift certificates to local businesses to help keep them afloat. When they can open their doors again, you can enjoy a nice meal or some great local products.
- Start or expand your home garden! Let’s bring back Victory Gardens and start providing more of our own food. When you have surplus produce this spring and summer, consider sharing with your neighbors or donating to Community Food Initiatives.
Lastly, I want to end with a story. After the CPA’s March 14th auction was cancelled, baker Sarah Miller had dozens of pies and baked goods just out of the oven with nowhere to go. The Triple Nickel Diner and many individuals rallied to make sure her Little Country Bakery did not suffer a big loss. The Triple Nickel Diner took many of her baked goods to be sold at their store and individuals drove to Sarah’s bakery to buy fresh pies, donuts, pumpkin rolls, and warm loaves of bread. In 24 hours, she had sold out. This is what we mean when we say we’re proud to be a part of this community. We can do this.
Molly Sowash is a national service AmeriCorps member with Rural Action‘s Sustainable Agriculture team. You’ll find her at the Chesterhill Produce Auction loading produce, checking customers out, or making friends with the livestock. She studied Creative Writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN and lived in Minneapolis for three years before returning to her roots in Ohio.