In North Carolina, pandemic prompts farmer cooperation

Even before he knew that city officials in Durham, North Carolina, would be suspending the local farmers’ market, George O’Neal was preparing for disruption. Last Saturday, he stood behind a table piled high with mustard greens and kale, holding a clipboard and taking names for what he hopes will become a model of coronavirus-era collaboration.

O’Neal and his partner, Lily Doyle, run Lil’ Farm, a five-acre vegetable operation 20 miles north of Durham in rural Timberlake. They grow open-pollinated field greens, along with 40 varieties of tomatoes and an equal diversity of squashes. Most of their produce gets sold at the Durham Farmers’ Market and to local restaurants.

“I’ve been waiting for doomsday my whole life,” says the 38-year-old O’Neal — or at least since the 2008 financial crisis. Even a brief pause in his sales, he knew, could mean months of unremunerated labor. “The harvest and selling is a very small percentage of the actual time it takes to make food,” says O’Neal. “The things we’d be selling [in April] we’ve been planting in the ground since last October and November.” Springtime sales, in turn, finance fertilizer and other expenses for the next planting season. Closed markets could snowball the loss.

What’s more, Lil’ Farm didn’t want to lay off its two employees. And O’Neal knew people need food in a pandemic and sometimes can’t afford it. He envisioned an emergency community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, where customers could pre-order vegetables for drop-off at their homes or a central location. But his farm isn’t set up for the variety of produce consumers want.

So O’Neal contacted other local farmers. They agreed that a multi-farm CSA could feed customers while keeping income flowing and workers employed. On the fly, they launched a conversation that, he says, “is happening a thousand times in North Carolina alone.”

This week’s closure of some local farmers’ markets and all restaurants statewide has forced small growers to think creatively about how to keep food and money moving through the system. For some, the answer is collaboration, not just with other farmers but also with allies in the small-food sector.

For O’Neal, one ally was his biggest customer: Rob Gillespie, who co-owns a popular bakery-restaurant in Durham called Monuts. Gillespie’s business had squirreled away some emergency cash, and he offered to prepay Lil’ Farm for the coming year’s tomatoes and squash. “We always assumed it would be a fire,” he says. “And I guess, instead of the building burning down, it’s Covid-19.” O’Neal declined the offer, but they agreed that Monuts could serve as a distribution hub for CSA boxes.

On Sunday, the city announced that the farmers’ market would close temporarily. On Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order banning indoor dining at restaurants. By Wednesday morning, O’Neal was packing his first 35 CSA boxes, with plans to triple his capacity over coming weeks. This week’s boxes have vegetables from two farms, with at least three others planning to come online shortly.

The boxes contain a week’s worth of seasonal vegetables and cost $25 — equivalent to prices at the farmers’ market. O’Neal offered to subsidize boxes for families that couldn’t afford them. He invited financially secure customers to do the same. Three bought CSA shares for their neighbors. Two others paid half the cost of shares, with Lil’ Farm absorbing the difference. One bought four extra shares for low-income neighbors who were anxious about shopping.

Across North Carolina, governments are wrestling with an ambiguous public-health question: Do farmers’ markets provide an essential service, like a supermarket? Or are they unnecessary vectors for Covid-19? The state Department of Agriculture is keeping open the large regional markets it operates in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Asheville. But municipal officials regulate the local markets, and are taking varied approaches. While Durham ordered its market closed, the nearby Carrboro Farmers’ Market remains open but with safety precautions like an extra hand-washing station.

“We consider ourselves like a grocery store, of utmost and necessary community importance, and not just a gathering space for social purposes,” says market manager Maggie Funkhouser. Last weekend, the market invited University of North Carolina clinical microbiologist Peter Gilligan to meet with vendors. He recommended hygienic practices like refusing to accept coins. At the entrances, firefighters kept watch to encourage social distancing.

Debbie Roos, an agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, visited the market and three chain grocery stores Saturday. “The Carrboro Farmers’ Market was the ONLY one of these four retail establishments where I saw any proactive, protective measures being taken and communicated to customers,” she later wrote.

Other markets are exploring their options. At the Apex Farmers Market outside Raleigh, which was ordered closed on Tuesday, operations manager Alexis Jenssen says she is considering a centralized ordering system. “Some farmers live way far out, and they don’t even have internet access,” she says. “It’s just uncharted territory for all of us.”

Meanwhile, the Durham Farmers’ Market is negotiating with city officials, says market manager Susan Sink. Planning for the worst, George O’Neal is working toward a broader CSA network that might include bakers and egg producers. The pandemic, he says, “lifts the veil so that we know it’s up to small groups of people to organize meaningful things to actually help people out.”