BELGRADE — The cadence of life at Winterberry Farm remains virtually unchanged amid the coronavirus pandemic.

More than two decades ago as a single mother, Mary Perry dedicated her life to farming, and that passion remains to this day. Her 40-acre farmstead, which she and her three children tend to, is one of Maine’s many organic farms that have felt both the good and bad reverberations of the last 10 pandemic-dominated months.

“The rest of the world was falling apart,” Perry said, “and I had a really beautiful safe place to be to raise kids, be here with my family and be a hub for my community.”

The business of farming changed in a handful of ways. Curbside orders replaced rummaging through a barrel to find the biggest tomato. Displays at farmers markets looked different to minimize handling. However, the process of farming didn’t change at all, local farmers said. In interviews, they expressed gratitude for keeping their lives fairly normal despite pandemic challenges.

According to a recent study published by Health-Ade, Maine ranks second in the United States for access to organic foods based on organic farms per capita. The Unity-based Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) works with and supports 550 organic farms throughout the state. The organization’s executive director, Sarah Alexander, said organic farmers faced a variety of challenges during the pandemic.

“Everything that affected our larger community had an acute impact on farms specifically,” Alexander said.

Jason Lilley works with both organic and conventional farms as a sustainable agriculture professional with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

According to an analysis by Lilley and colleagues of a fall COVID-19 Maine farmer survey by the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine, 46.3% of respondents reported a decrease in revenues. Another 29.9% reported an increase and 17.9% said revenues stayed the same, meaning 1.5% more respondents reported stable or increased revenue than decreased revenue. Survey respondents were both organic and commercial farmers. Lilley believes there isn’t a major difference between organic or conventional, that both, as well as the maple industry, saved some businesses by selling direct to consumers.

“I think everybody was thinking in March and at the beginning of April that everything was going to get completely shut down and go out of business,” Lilley said. “The general public just recognized that farms needed support, and at the same time families were at home cooking more, so farmers that were selling direct to consumer had increased sales and that has sustained up until this period.”

Mary Perry prepares one of her horses Friday for the sleigh rides offered at Winterberry Farm in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Dalziel Lewis, owner of Dig Deep Farm in China, said her produce farm “was poised for pretty decent resilience” throughout the pandemic. Lewis felt a social responsibility to offer a safe and prosperous environment. She and her husband, Jon, maneuvered through the pandemic while raising their daughter, Freeda, who was born in August 2019.

“She was our priority, so often our skill sets weren’t fully available to the farming operation,” Dalziel Lewis said. “What was fun and what I was really grateful for was because we were operating a business, we had people to be around at a safe distance and all that stuff, but I also think that as a certified organic grower, we were able to create a food safety plan for the pandemic.”

When the pandemic hit, farms were investing in seeds, compost and other items to start the growing season. When restaurants and other businesses were forced to close during the pandemic’s early months, farms felt the immediate effects with the instant loss of key buyers.

“Finding those secure markets to sell to is always a challenge, but that was exacerbated by the pandemic,” Alexander said. “It wasn’t the normal season that many farmers and food producers would rely on.”

Andy Smith and Caitlin Frame started The Milkhouse Creamery in 2012 in a leased facility in South China, but have owned their Monmouth farm since 2015. They milk about 40 cows, raise 60 feeder pigs and beef and have a small flock of sheep.

They had just started selling yogurt in bulk to Colby College and the University of Maine system when the pandemic hit.

“A lot of those still really haven’t fully come back,” Smith said.

After a social media post about excess yogurt, the orders rolled in. They also have an honor system farm store. Overall, year over year, they’re doing OK. Their business model is different from most dairy farms in the state, Smith said, in that they sell directly to wholesale accounts.

“That’s made up the difference in what we haven’t had in bulk institutional accounts,” Smith said. “It’s definitely up, but it was ‘panic buying’ at the beginning.”

The added costs of personal protective equipment and other safety implementations created a financial burden for many farms.

Unrelated to the pandemic, a lengthy summer drought over most of Maine provided challenges, and a late spring frost that came through some areas in June killed some crops. As farms figured out coronavirus protocols, the external factors snowballed.

“(The pandemic) definitely exacerbated it, but when I was talking to producers through the harvest season, I was actually approaching the conversation about COVID-19, but most producers would switch to the drought,” Lilley said. “That was really a big concern that had some big impacts.”

Sage Perry, 14, helps her mother Mary Perry, right, prepare the horse for sleigh rides Friday at Winterberry Farm in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Other revenue streams such as weddings, events and ecotourism dried up, creating further financial deficits. Operations across the state constantly changed through the uncharted pandemic waters.

“It’s really hard to shift course midstream, but farmers were dealing with those rolling set of challenges and adapting each week,” Alexander said.

At Winterberry Farm, Perry said farmers markets were lucrative, and they did curbside orders before welcoming in visitors at a physical distance. Perry homeschooled her children, who range in ages from 15-25, at the farm. The farm uses only horses and oxen to cultivate the vegetable and flower fields.

Winterberry Farm offered its usual farm-to-table dinners, kids camps, sleigh rides and visits to hang out with the animals safely. Winterberry also sells seasonal cut flowers and offers a farm stand stocked with homemade goodies.

“The take-home for me is the agritourism piece,” Perry said. “It felt really good to be able to provide people a place to bring their family. To me, that was the biggest and most rewarding bit about COVID.”

Alexander believes certified organic farmers may have had an advantage in reaching more customers. Healthy foods are always in demand. Direct consumers sought out healthy options, and certified organic means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers during production, which is healthier for the environment and the consumer. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares were popular.

Sage Perry, 14, tries to get the horse from the pasture without losing a sheep Friday at Winterberry Farm in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Our wholesale outlet is to a multi-farm CSA, so what I hear is that they had a very busy season,” said Lewis, of Dig Deep Farm. “We’re a pretty community, direct-to-consumer focus.”

Winterberry Farm had 210 year round CSAs, three times as many as normal.

“Everyone wants to know where their food is coming from.” Perry said.

MOFGA set up workshops and help sheets with resources for farmers for everything from how to get safety equipment to selling online for the first time. Their annual farmer to farmer conference went virtual. MOFGA and Maine Farmland Trust also facilitated two rounds of grants though the Maine Farm Emergency Grants program, the most recent of which was announced last week.

“They’re small grants, so they’re just one piece of the support that farmers should be receiving,” said Ellen Sabina, outreach director at Maine Farmland Trust. “We’re just hoping these grants can help supplement the extra costs that farms have incurred this year.”

MOFGA had to transition the annual Common Ground Country Fair in 2020 to a virtual format due to the coronavirus pandemic. Located in Unity, the fair is normally held the third weekend after Labor Day. As many as 60,000 people flock to the agricultural fair, which began in 1977 as a fundraiser for MOFGA. The 2021 fair is scheduled for its normal in-person festivities from Sept. 24-26.

“That’s a really important market for not only our farmers, but our artisans, food producers and crafters throughout the state,” Alexander said. “It’s like the second largest city in the state, essentially, for that weekend.”

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