In any given year, farming is a notoriously risky business: It’s too dry or it’s too wet. A nasty pest wipes out the tomatoes; a late freeze kills the apple blossoms; a fast, ferocious gale destroys the strawberry crop. Or the federally set price of milk doesn’t cover the cost for dairy farmers to produce it.

And then there is the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a whole different scale,” said Ryan Dennett, farmer programs director at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

The pandemic hit just as the growing season got underway – seeds already ordered and in some cases started, and crop plans in place – and just as farmers’ financial resources are at their lowest annual ebb. And while farmers in Maine are used to “bobbing and weaving,” as Lisa Turner of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport put it, this year, on top of the usual risks, they face a spate of wholly new questions, constraints and unknowns.

Should they plant comfort food crops like bell peppers or the exciting heirloom varieties – Romanesco cauliflower, Chantenay carrots – that some have become known for? Can their usual crews, who should be arriving now from countries like Jamaica and Mexico, even get here? And if they can, how can they be safely housed? Can popular pick-your-own berry crops which typically draw huge crowds – strawberries are just two short months away – be reorganized safely? Can the state’s many farmers markets? The popular Portland Farmers’ Market opens in Deering Oaks on Saturday. Can five members of a farm crew even jump in a truck together in order to get to a distant field?

The pandemic has upended all the careful plans of Ian Jerolmack, shown here a few years ago at his Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

RESTAURANT SUPPLY

One group of farmers that has been hit particularly hard are those who sell primarily to the state’s many restaurants, where a farm-to-table ethos has predominated for at least a decade.

Take Ian Jerolmack, a farmer-owner of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham, who says that in usual times 90 percent of his sales are to restaurants, places like Eventide Oyster Co., Central Provisions, Piccolo and Fore Street, some 40 to 45 restaurants total, all proudly listed on the farm’s website.

The restaurant shutdown hit him fast. On March 11 and 12, cooks and chefs on his delivery route were just beginning to comprehend the pandemic’s potential impact, Jerolmack said. “Friday the 13th was the last time I did deliveries as normal.”

Desperate for another market, he threw together a 150-person CSA, or farm share, in record time. He decided not to seed his leeks, which tend to be a restaurant crop. For the same reason, he expects he may have to toss thousands of pounds of shishito pepper seedlings he’s already started. He let the insurance on his truck lapse (he won’t be driving it) and skipped his organic certification this year. “If I go out of business, who cares if I am certified organic or not?” he asked.

“Every day, we are revisiting what we are doing. We don’t know who we are selling to,” Jerolmack said. “We went from 90 percent sales to restaurants to zero. I always felt I was pretty diversified to be selling to so many of them. Who would guess that they would all close on the exact same day?”

PANTRY BASICS

The state’s dairy and potato farmers face their own set of challenges.

Milk prices are determined federally through a complex system based in part on the price of storable dairy products like butter, cheese, and powdered milk and whey. Such items are used primarily by chain restaurants (think cheeseburgers or pizza), large institutions like universities, and industry for processing and export; demand in all those areas has plummeted, explained Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, and with it, the price paid to farmers for milk. “This is the immediate stress that’s on the farm right now,” she said.

At the same time, the cows on the state’s 213 remaining dairy farms “don’t know that COVID-19 is going around. The cows are doing their thing,” she said. “There is no pause button on the cow.”

The resulting glut has led some dairy farmers in Maine to dump milk; Bickford could not estimate their numbers nor the number of gallons unloaded at manure pits rather than at overtaxed milk-processing plants.

For Maine’s potato farmers, too, it’s hard times. Last week, Maine’s delegation to Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue seeking help for them.

Some 65 percent of the state’s crop is processed, made into items like french fries and potato chips for restaurant chains and ballparks, Maine Potato Board Executive Director Don Flannery explained. While supermarket sales have picked up, he said, “there is no way that volume can offset the volume of potatoes that normally we would go through processing in a month.”

Flannery, once a potato farmer himself, was speaking about the 2019 crop, some 12 percent of which, “a lot, a lot,” now has nowhere to go; potatoes, like all foods, have a shelf life, and the clock is ticking. To make matters worse, planting season for 2020 is just weeks away, and nobody knows when the coronavirus crisis will end.

Potatoes require expensive equipment, fuel and fertilizer to grow. “It’s not advisable to plant if you know you haven’t got a home for them,” Flannery said, who expects potato acreage to drop at least 10 percent this season. Maine farmers who grow for the processing market will just have to make “their best guess on the day we start planting,” Flannery said.

FROM AWAY 

Whether it’s potatoes, apples or vegetables, finding a crew to tend to the crop is a looming concern. According to the state Department of Labor, to date about 30 Maine farms have applied for H2A visas to bring a total of some 415 temporary agricultural workers to Maine in 2020. The department expects many more applications from the state’s blueberry and apple farmers as harvest time approaches.

In Maine, such crews largely come from Jamaica, said Joseph Young, executive director of New England Apple Council, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that helps farms around the region get seasonal laborers. In the best of times, the visa process is slow and cumbersome, he said. The pandemic has introduced new obstacles.

He elaborated: Flights from Jamaica are down to just once a week so the workers can’t get here. Some of them, frightened by the pandemic, don’t want to come. Some federal departments and embassies that process the paperwork were temporarily shut down or their work slowed, causing an application bottleneck.

“It is a little frustrating for the guy that needed workers April 1 and still doesn’t have them,” Young said.

With so many people out of work in Maine, it’s true that a new potential labor pool is close at hand. But it’s also true that many Maine farmers bring back the same international crews year after year, mostly men who know the farms, and their equipment and procedures, inside out. Unemployed workers from the restaurant industry, say, may have no experience working on a farm, nor want any. “It’s bend-over physical labor,” said David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist with the UMaine Cooperative Extension.

WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT?

Like the rest of us, farmers face generalized anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic. They worry their crew could get sick, their customers could get sick, or they could get sick themselves. “And as a sole proprietor what is going to happen then?” said Turner, at Laughing Stock Farm.

They are spending long hours working up new ways to market their products and sifting through reams of information about how to keep farms safe and employees paid, additional work that’s exhausting. Moreover, it’s unsettling – and atypical – to be worn out at the start of the season. “I worry about farmer burnout,” said Beth Schiller of Dandelion Spring Farm in Bowdoinham.

In the first two weeks of the pandemic, the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine surveyed farmers about its effects. The survey asked specific questions, about hiring practices and marketing, for example, and tossed in a generalized question, too: “What are you concerned about?”

“It was everything,” Jason Lilley, sustainable agricultural professional with the UMaine Cooperative Extension, said describing the answers returned to that last question. “The complete lack of certainty about anything.”

In past years, Portland’s outdoor farmers market has been packed with customers. This year, “our market will feel very different than usual,” organizers say. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

THE GOOD NEWS

The picture is not all bleak. Small vegetable farms that market directly to consumers – through farm stands, CSAs and farmers markets – have seen a surge in demand, according to farmers and agricultural experts. Their communities have showered them with love and purchase orders.

“Customers have so far been overwhelmingly supportive of their local farms and farmers,” Handley said.

Small farmers have devised new ways to sell, opening farm stands, boxing up produce for drop-off or pick-up, bundling it with that of other farmers and food artisans, and marketing their many and varied efforts heavily through social media. Some approaches add new costs, of course – more packaging and more staff time, for two.

Farmers are capitalizing on new opportunities. With the explosion of interest in home gardening, for instance, many are growing more seedlings for that market. Sales of seedlings are concentrated in a three-week period that starts in mid-May, a potential perfect storm of many customers packed into a small window of time browsing products that require a lot of space. As that period fast approaches, the Cooperative Extension service has just put together fact sheets to help farmers “think through how they can lay out seedlings to keep people safe,” Lilley said.

All in all, Handley said, the state’s farmers are facing the challenges of the pandemic with “innovation and grim determination.”

BUCK THE SYSTEM

The big picture also offers a glimmer of hope. MOFGA’s Dennett noted that the pandemic has pointed out gaps in the nation’s food supply system. “It’s unfortunate this is happening,” she said, “but this is really highlighting the value of having a local food system to rely on in times of crisis.”

The farmers themselves, grappling with the many, urgent daily necessities of the crisis – which change day by day and week by week as the growing season ramps up – are doing their damndest to plan, plant, harvest and sell in the middle of a pandemic.

“If you are not stupidly optimistic,” Turner said, “you can’t be a farmer.”

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