Jul 29, 2020
Editor’s Letter: When times get tough, growers get going
Stephen Kloosterman

The organic growers I’ve met are tough, innovative people. And it’s good they’re tough and innovative, because the COVID-19 pandemic – and the market disruption that it brought – continues to impact organic crop growers.

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Stephen Kloosterman

When the news reports of a new coronavirus first came in, I hoped and even believed it would leave in the next news cycle – replaced by a political outrage, tidbit of salacious celebrity gossip or viral video of a cute animal.

However, the virus continues to stay.

It’s changed how we work. When I left my office building in March, I thought I might be gone for a week or maybe two. However, as of this writing in late June, I have yet to return. Interviews were conducted over my cellphone, often while hiding in a bedroom to avoid the noise caused by my young family.

Some meetings, like the summer Organic Produce Summit, have been called off; others, like United Fresh LIVE! and the MOSES Organic Field Days, have transitioned into virtual events on the internet. The virus has shut down or at least made more complicated the operation of pick-your-own berry patches and some farm markets. Dine-in restaurants have been closed for a long time, and that’s meant a big drop in foodservice sales.

The virus has changed our business environment, too. The USDA’s Economic Research Service’s Vegetable and Pulses Outlook report this spring repeatedly referenced the effects that COVID-19 had on the markets. Not all in the report was bad news – in particular, organic carrots were doing well before COVID-19, it noted. An agricultural economist I spoke to said people might eat more strawberries if they stay at home during the pandemic.

When times get tough, tough people get going. Early on in the pandemic, I was inspired to read regional reports of organic growers going ahead with their work in innovative ways:

  • McClendon’s Select Farm in Arizona, which offered “grab-and-go” boxes of organic produce at locations around town after losing its restaurant business, as reported by Phoenix’s ABC 15 TV station.
  • Washington State’s Bainbridge Organic Distillers, which shifted its production to hand sanitizer using corn from organic grower Williams Hudson Bay Farm, according to the Seattle Times.
  • Connecticut’s Waldingfield Farm, an organic vegetable farm that briefly re-opened a local produce market while its neighbors were sheltering in place, as reported by The Connecticut Mirror.

More recently, industry reports from the Organic Produce Network (OPN) and the Organic Trade Association (OTA), have been quite upbeat on retail sales of produce. April 2020’s total organic fresh produce sales were up 18% from last year, and May sales were up 16%, according to OPN’s report. An OTA survey found organic remained “more important than ever” for more than 90% of shoppers during late April and early May.

Our work is always changing, but it continues to bear fruit.

Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower.

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