Persistence pays off

Medical Lake, Wash., farmer Dan Sproule with  LINC Foods co-founder Beth Robinette. She said during a webinar the co-op is shifting to its Community Supported Agriculture program because many of the restaurants it supplies are closed because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Growers, co-ops and agencies are figuring out ways to keep farms running amid a wave of  coronavirus concerns.

Several farmers and agency representatives spoke during a Washington Young Farmers Coalition web seminar on farm resilience in response to coronavirus impacts that range from restaurant closures to a shortage of supplies.

In Spokane, the LINC Foods cooperative primarily sells to restaurants and institutions. The majority of those customers are now closed, said co-founder Beth Robinette, who is also a rancher in Cheney, Wash.

The co-op is shifting to its vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription program as quickly as possible. The program usually begins in June, but LINC is figuring out ways customers can order online sooner, Robinette said.

"It's definitely pretty challenging times," she said. "We're just trying to play out as many scenarios as possible and be prepared for whatever happens."

Many people are stocking up on meat, which benefits Robinette's custom beef operation that primarily sells directly to consumers. She may explore selling more beef by the cut, she said.

"Our family ranch was really founded in the midst of the Depression, and we've basically operated with a Depression-era mentality for the last 80-some years," she said. "In a lot of ways, I think we have been preparing for this moment for a long time."

The ranch is set up to be minimal-input, she said.

"We have just been so averse to having any kind of debt on our ranch, which I recognize is way easier when you rented and bought land in the 1930s and 1950s than now," she said, noting the operation relies on older vehicles and equipment. "We just really try to be extremely conservative in our financial planning." 

Puyallup farmer Amy Moreno-Sills said that  "everything is so new that we're not making any hard-and-fast decisions right now. Everything is business as usual as far as what day-to-day work looks like."

Moreno-Sills raises vegetables for the wholesale market on 30 acres and has 6 acres of U-pick blueberries. Her biggest concern is procuring supplies such as packaging, she said.

"We've been getting ourselves into a bit of debt to pre-purchase those products we need right now so we'll have them on hand when things become harvestable," Moreno-Sills said. 

Labor is up in the air, she said. 

"Maybe we'll have a lot of folks looking for work or maybe we won't have (any) at all," she said. "We just have to be flexible, like every farmer is every year."

Jennifer Antos, executive director of the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Market, said her organization is surveying members to gauge immediate impacts and needs. Priorities are working with government to safely re-open permitted and regulated farmers' markets and organizing emergency relief funding and fundraising a stop-gap for farms that cannot pivot to new delivery methods, she said.

Farmers who think their businesses could experience economic impacts due to the virus are encouraged to apply for the U.S. Small Business Administration's disaster and economic injury loans, said Laura Raymond, manager of the state Department of Agriculture's regional markets program.

"...State, local and federal agencies right now are in fast emergency response mode," Raymond said. "There are a lot of people out there who are ready to help, and they're trying to figure out how. We're all in it together, and there is a lot of action happening."

The seminar drew 300 to 400 people.Two-thirds were producers and one-third were service providers.

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