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Maine's Food Supply Chain Was Disrupted By The Pandemic. So Shoppers Went Straight To Local Farmers

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Mark Vogelzang
/
Maine Public file
Cows at Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture in 2017.

In some ways, farmers are accustomed to uncertainty. The weather, for example, where one brief summer storm can wipe out an entire crop. But the upheavals created by the coronavirus pandemic were something very different.

Food producers encountered some new scenarios with the supply chain, market shutdowns and more, and maybe learned some things on the way. Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal spoke with Maine Public host Jennifer Mitchell about how the pandemic has affected farms and food producers.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Mitchell: What were some of the challenges to emerge over the past year? And how did farmers take those challenges on? What were some of the success stories?

Beal: Looking back to a year ago, when I think about the conversations that I was having with farmers, the biggest initial challenge then was just the overall uncertainty about to what extent the pandemic would disrupt markets and for how long. Once people started to have a sense that it was going to be more than a week or two, we saw a lot of people trying to find solutions, being really innovative. Farmers who were selling primarily to wholesale markets, like restaurants, schools and other markets that just weren’t there anymore. They really looked for opportunities to connect with consumers. And at the same time, what was happening is that as customers were going into grocery stores and seeing that the staple products that they wanted weren’t there, they were turning to their local farms and wanting to know how they could buy directly. And I’ve heard stories of farmers who didn’t even have farm stands, didn’t do direct-to-consumer sales, who had people just pulling into their driveway saying, ‘What do you have that you can sell?’ So these two things sort of coming together meant that some of our farmers, yes, who you know, are engaged in CSAs or sell at farmers markets and have other direct-to-consumer outlets, and ones that got onboard and started that up in the last year, they had one of their busiest years ever. I’ve heard that over and over again, as well.

So people were trying to find the produce that they wanted to buy. And that kind of brings me to the next point, which is we did in grocery stores see something that looked a lot like scarcity early on in the pandemic — bare meat cases and limits put on eggs and milk and butter and so on. What does that say to you about the food supply and Maine’s position on the chain?

That’s a great question. We are in a lot of ways at the end of the line. And so when you think about trucks coming from other places with shipments of food for our grocery store shelves, sometimes by the time they get to us, there’s less for us to be able to access. A lot of people have known and have been warning for a really long time that our predominant food system contains inherent vulnerabilities. And that some kind of shock to the system could result in exactly what we saw with this pandemic. I’m just coming from a week of being at a national conference with other state departments of agriculture and other commissioners. And it’s really something everyone’s talking about. Everyone would like to see resources and more opportunities to strengthen their local food system. Not to say that we all don’t want to still be able to access things from all over the country and all over the globe. The point isn’t to reduce our ability to do that, but to really strengthen our local food systems and our local economy so that we can weather situations like this or any other shocks to the system in the future.

Like what? What’s at the top of your to-do list?

One of the one of the areas that we’re very well aware of is in terms of meat processing, especially in this last year. There’s a lot of bottlenecks, I guess I would say, because the demand is higher than what we have the capacity to do here in-state. And so that’s one area that we know that we need to be be looking at. And then the processing of vegetables, there’s opportunity for growth there. And what’s also great is there are folks out there who are interested in taking that on. What we’re going to do at the department is we’re going to keep working on this idea of how we rebuild infrastructure. And we’d really like to see some bond funding come through to help us to also support this rebuilding.

And that kind of brings us up to 2021. Gov. Janet Mills mentioned farming along with fishing and forestry as some of the industries she wants to seek bond support for coming up. So for the rest of the year, is it too soon to say what kind of position we’re in? People will start planting soon and give us a little, I guess, ‘State of Maine Agriculture’ going forward.

The good news is, you know, for decades, we’ve really been working to build a vibrant local and regional food system. And fortunately, the foundation that we’ve laid over the years was there to be built upon in a way that helped us to really quickly connect farmers with new consumers over the past year. So I think the key to our resilience going forward is to continue to build on that work. I think that our farmers are going to have a strong year ahead. I think that they’ve done an excellent job of, you know, anticipating what was coming up, what was ahead and figuring out how to navigate through any obstacles. There are a lot of lessons that were learned in the last year that will only strengthen what they’re doing going forward.

For more in Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.