Farmer Ashley Rodgers grows vegetables on her organic farm in Douglasville, but in her 11 years farming she has rarely seen such uncertainty as restaurants closed their doors and farmers markets shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Disruptions amid the coronavirus spread couldn’t have come at a worse time for her small farm, Rodgers Greens and Roots, Rodgers said.
“This is the most difficult time of year for me financially,” Rodgers said. “It's like we're out of money from what we were able to sell, you know, during the winter, and I've spent a ton of money, maxed out my credit cards from a cash flow standpoint."
Now farmers across Georgia are forced to find new ways of operating during a pandemic.
With crop production relying heavily on favorable weather conditions and market prices fluctuating greatly, many farmers live on thin profit margins even without the strain of a global pandemic according to Assistant Dean of Extension at UGA College of Agriculture Mark McCann.
“When you start laying in all these different factors together, it's a burden for these farmers,” McCann said. “They have to be optimists to stay in the business.”
Right now, Rodgers is still in the middle of her slow season, so she doesn't know the damage the pandemic will do to her business, but it’s that uncertainty that worries her most.
“What's going to happen at the end of April, early May, when I'm sitting on a ton of produce?” Rodgers asked.
Her farm relies on three main streams of income: farmers markets, restaurants and curated local food boxes sold by Fresh Harvest. The farmers market where she usually sells, Peachtree Road, closed down due to concerns over COVID-19. The restaurants that buy from her have closed or switched to take out, no longer needing as much food.
Distribution amid the pandemic has been the largest obstacle to navigate for most farmers, according to Kim Karris, the Executive Director of Food Well Alliance. She has been working with other food organizations in Metro Atlanta to assist local farmers.
“We're seeing that they have the food, it's the distribution. It's getting it to the people. So we're trying to coordinate an action group," Karris said.
Arguing farmers markets should be considered an essential service-like grocery stores-Karris is working with members of the surrounding communities to reopen closed markets with new safety protocols.
In the meantime, to sustain their businesses, farmers like Rodgers are increasingly going digital to connect with buyers during this time of social distancing.
Rodgers started a system last week which allows customers to pre-order food online that can then be picked up on the farm.
“It obviously had its kinks because it was the first time, but it was a huge success," Rodgers said. "Everyone was really happy.”
While there were fewer customers, produce orders were larger than the average farmers market haul and she made more money overall. But that may not always be the case and the federal government is looking for way to sustain the agriculture industry in Georgia, and across the United States, as well.
While aid for farmers and ranchers is being discussed as part of a federal stimulus package, an agreement has not been reached at this point. In the meantime, local food organizations, like the Farmers Fund, are taking matters into their own hands.
The Farmer Fund, run by Georgia Organics, is a collaboration of multiple local food organizations raising money to support farmers in need. Originally set up to provide relief in the case of natural disasters, the fund has now been dedicated to seeing local farmers through the uncertain times of a global pandemic.
“It feels like we are in such a precarious time, but also a time where people are starting to realize the value of local agriculture, of growing food for yourself as an act of resilience,” said Karris.
For a list of local food providers in your area, check out Georgia Organics Good Food Guide.