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Small Maine farmers sell more product despite virus constraints

By Kendra Caruso | Apr 29, 2020
Source: File photo Outland Farm in Pittsfield, July 2019.

While many large-scale farms in the United States have reported dumping large amounts of food because the coronavirus has closed down their usual restaurant and overseas markets, small farmers in Maine say they are selling their products at higher rates than in previous years.

Jason Stutheit, who owns Pond Hill Farm in Brooks, said he sold all of his beef faster than in previous years. He has had to order more cows from Pennsylvania to keep up with his customers’ demand.

Stutheit said he usually only sells 30 cows as a side venture to his construction consulting job, which has nearly come to a standstill. “At least I’m not losing money in two places,” he said. But selling more cows does not fully make up for the money he is losing from not working his day job.

He does not expect the demand for beef will decrease if coronavirus-related shutdowns persist into the summer. Rather, he said, people might become more dependent on local farmers. I think the more this goes on, people are going to have to start looking at small farms for beef or produce," he said. "So I think small farmers will benefit from this.”

Dickey Hill Farm in Monroe, which grows vegetables, had to switch from a 100% farmers market platform to online sales. Owner Naomi Brautigam said she and her partner are working more hours than usual to meet the increased demand.

Even though sales are up, she is investing in sanitary packaging for her products, which is an extra cost, and the online payment system she uses charges her 3% on each purchase, she said.

She has not had to lay off any of her workers, but applied for payroll protection to cover her own and other employees’ paychecks as the shutdown continues. She said she is already anticipating a lower gross income this year because of the costs she has incurred as a result of the civil emergency.

Overall, she said, she is anxious about the upcoming season. “Usually stress comes in July or August,” she said, “but this year it feels like it came early.”

A. Smart Farms in Unity sells strawberries and maple syrup. This year it was supposed to participate in Maple Sunday, according to owner Andrew Smart. But the event was canceled because of COVID-19. Smart said he had hoped revenue from participating in the event this year would help him pay for supplies and business costs to maintain his strawberry farm, which has blossomed into 4,000 plants over the five years he has owned the property.

The farm has enough plants to open up its fields to people picking for themselves this season. But even though farming is considered an essential business, if Gov. Mills’ social distancing order continues into the summer, Smart said, he does not know how a u-pick model would be administered with social distancing.

Usually he sells his strawberries and syrup at two farmers' markets. But he said there is no way he and his wife, the only two who work on the farm, can collect that much product by themselves, so much of it would go to waste.

Smart and his wife have been volunteering at a local farmers’ market until their product is ready to be sold. He said it has changed to a primarily pre-order market with curbside delivery. He said much of the food is sold within the first 24 hours that the market opens each week.

Many farmers' markets have had to change the way they run. The United Farmers’ Market of Maine and the Belfast Farmers’ Market are currently promoting pickup ordering. They moved their vendors outside and have asked people to maintain a 6-foot distance from others in lines.

Maine Farmland Trust and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association are offering Maine Farm Emergency Grants to help farmers struggling from the coronavirus. Up to $2,000 will be awarded to farms that qualify. The organizations have raised $70,000 in funds for the program. It will start administering grants in the beginning of May.

There are more than a thousand farms in Maine that have gone through MFT and MOFGA’s programs over the years and are eligible for the Emergency Grants,” MFT President Bill Toomey said in a press release.

Many of these farms have felt the impacts of this crisis, and we hope this grant support will help Maine’s hardworking and creative farmers adapt their businesses to the new realities of this unprecedented situation.”

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Ralph Stanley | May 02, 2020 17:16

Astonishing that local people are saying nothing here. This is the time if there ever was one to recognize that local farms whatever size they may be are our future. Big opportunity to set a new standard for locally grown food production with local investment X 10. No better quality. I buy all around to whomever has what I need. Yes, there are gaps to some of those things that we are used to such as flour and sugar etc. but maybe now is the time to reconsider what those items bring to us anyway. No reason why 80% of all organic produce consumed in Belfast is not grown within a half hour drive. Year round.

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