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COVID exposes food system flaws; Missoula growers adjust to make ends meet

The market in downtown Missoula before the pandemic was a busy place, and good for local producers. But changes to the market due to the pandemic, and other factors, have left many growers in a pinch. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

First, millions of Americans overwhelmed grocery stores, piling up carts with dairy and canned beans, toilet paper and sanitizer, leaving shelves reminiscent of the typical doomsday movie.

Then, the New York Times reported massive food waste as farmers plowed vegetables, smashed eggs and, at one Iowa farm, exterminated pigs on a large scale, unable to sell them to restaurants, hotels and schools as consumers hibernated for the spring.

“I think everybody is seeing how vulnerable our food system is,” said Sean McCoy, co-founder and owner of Frank’s Little Farm with his partner, Prairie, and their two young children.

The amount of waste, largely from farms with a narrow crop focus who distribute their goods almost entirely wholesale, has confronted society with an unsettling reality. As 40 million Americans struggle with food insecurity and 815 million people suffer from chronic malnourishment worldwide, the Dairy Farmers of America were dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk each day.

One chicken processor smashed 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.

Yet even as lockdowns have relaxed and restaurants and hotels have reopened for business, some Montana producers continue to struggle with meeting sales goals.

“The pandemic has definitely affected our sales,” said Kim Murchison of Clark Fork Organics, a staple producer of vegetables and herbs within the Missoula community. “The biggest thing has been that restaurants weren’t open in the spring and now are partially open, or not having the same amount of business as usual.”

Restrictions in place at the Missoula Farmer’s Markets and the Clark Fork River Market aren’t helping. Both are open later than anticipated with restrictions, such as one-way traffic, face masks and one person per household limit. Yet many consumers are unaware of the markets’ openings, afraid to shop or only attending the market for casual browsing.

Farmers markets offer increased profits over selling to wholesalers, food processors or large grocery firms. When selling directly to consumers, producers circumvent significant costs of transportation, handling and refrigeration.

“The farmer’s market has been a huge loss,” Murchinson said of the local producers. “I usually sell quite a lot of bedding plants and produce through the Missoula market. It didn’t even open for a while, then we had to arrange for pre-orders — tons of labor for not much money, sort of the theme for the season. Now it’s open but poorly attended.”

McCoy, a member of the Missoula Farmers Market board who strategized its reopening policies, reflected the thoughts of certain farmers. “I think there’s a lot of frustration for some of the producers because we see big stores open with no restrictions, but the farmers market is completely open air and one of the safest shopping areas you could find.”

Dawn McGee, CEO of Goodworks Ventures, an organization that concentrates on local food, sustainability and ethics, made a grant to the farmers market early this spring to help them get people online to order. “But that’s not enough if you shut down traffic to the farmers market, which is where most of the produce goes through in western Montana in the summer time,” McGee said.

Still, most farmers do not yet know how dramatically these closures and restrictions will impact their business, as they are only halfway through the market season.

McGee is hoping to get a sense of the consequences by sending out a survey to the farmers she works with, but for the most part, she has only been left with more questions.

“If there’s no people at the market and the farmers aren’t selling anything, does that mean next year they won’t plant and grow as much?” McGee said. “Does that mean their whole livelihood got killed off because they can’t find the market for their produce?”

While these closures and restrictions have largely affected multiple acre and multi-million dollar farms nationally, in Missoula, it has also impacted the more vulnerable populations, “particularly some of our immigrant communities, our Hmong families and our Belarus communities, they don’t have as many options. They need the farmers market,” McCoy said.

Some larger farms have sold their produce to food banks at discounted prices, yet many lack the capacity to store fresh produce, such as the Montana Food Bank. The Missoula Food Bank, in contrast, takes on high quantities of perishable goods, but it doesn’t have the processing or freezer capability if a large amount of perishable food came, McGee said.

This has caused farmers of diverse markets to explore new modes of selling their produce directly to consumers, in a sense, getting back to their roots.

“We’ve tried to make up for some of that loss by selling more through our farm stand,” Murchison said of Clark Fork Organics. “We did a big upgrade this spring, building a small building and getting some refrigeration.”

The Montana Food Bank prepares a shipment of apples. Some larger farms have sold their produce to food banks at discounted prices, yet many lack the capacity to store fresh produce. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Frank’s Little Farm, where selling largely occurs through customer shares and their farm stand, hasn’t suffered as much as wholesale producers, according to McCoy.

“The farm stand hasn’t been impacted negatively,” McCoy said. “In fact, we’ve seen an increase of sales at the farm stand because it’s been open since May 1, and it’s just an easy way to shop without running into crowds of people.”

He said that having varied methods of selling directly to consumers is what allows the farm to stay afloat while others — especially those who sell predominantly to schools or restaurants and focus on a single area of produce — have been struggling since March.

Some farms have transitioned to digital sales, but the sentiment remains — former wholesale farmers are finding new ways to sell their produce to everyday individuals.

“A lot of wholesale farmers have moved online, and that has helped alleviate some of that downturn for their sales, and for some of them, it’s been an okay tradeoff,” McCoy said.

McCoy said the increase in local buying will persist for some locally focused consumers.

“When we start to move into the new normal in probably a year or more, there are going to be many folks who go back to the lifestyle of eating out,” he said. “But I think for some people it’s changed their lives, and it’s going to change their lives forever.”

Whether they recognized it or not, restaurant closures seriously benefited consumers, McGee suggested, saying “people have rediscovered that it’s a lot cheaper to eat at home.”

On average, it is about five times more expensive to dine out than to eat at home. Increasing studies suggest that local food sold at farmers markets and farm stands is less expensive than non-local food sold at supermarkets.

McCoy hopes this will have a significant enough impact on the local food system, such that buyers recognize the fault lines of large farming monopolies and the food waste they perpetuate.

“If we were being true to the pillars of capitalism, there would be more diversity and you would not get bailed out, you would fail,” McCoy said. “You wouldn’t have these huge farms controlling large sections of the farming industries and minimizing those smaller farmers so they can’t leach out into the larger industry. We would have more diversity, more opportunity, and more competition within the farming industry. And you can take that industry by industry by industry.”

The effects of agricultural consolidation are particularly apparent in the sales of various agricultural products. In 2015, the biggest four companies sold 76% of soybean seeds in the U.S. These vertically integrated corporations — those that control multiple levels of the food system through contracts with small farmers — have generated ripple effects across the entire industry, leaving little room for adaptability for a breadth of farmers.

Other producers simply lack the funds to transform their business model. That said, McGee believes community efforts can help local farmers and prevent food waste.

“I’m hopeful that if we do have a big surplus of food in the fall, people will consider putting food away, doing canning and doing shared labor to create food for a long time,” McGee said.

Food waste has been a problem, both in society’s dealings with world hunger and sustainability, long before COVID-19. A third of all food produced globally goes to waste, and while it’s easy to fault farmers, the number one place we waste food in the United States is within the household.

Food is the number one item in American landfills, and if it were measured as a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the U.S. and China. Yet according to Sean McCoy, admitting that society has a waste problem is the first step toward progress.

“Whether it’s sustainability or racism — take your pick of the plethora of topics that have been flushed up to the surface — I think a lot of people are having their eyes opened, and I think with time we’re going to work our way through and find a better route.”

Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She can be reached at agp2147@barnard.edu