By Katy Kelleher
The century-old Snell Family Farm, in Buxton, is usually pretty quiet in early spring. I live down the road, and I’ve roasted the Snells’ beets, sautéed their garlic scapes, and planted my garden with their seedlings for years. This spring, though, wasn’t the yawning stretch before the hubbub of summer that I’m used to — by May 1, the farm’s parking lot was full, the checkout lines long, the customers wearing masks.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken a financial toll on much of the local food system around Maine, especially restaurants, and it might stand to reason that small farms supplying those restaurants would suffer downstream effects. But the Snells seemed to be doing okay, and so were other farmers I talked with. “My direct sales have increased since the pandemic,” Little Ridge Farm owner Keena Tracy told me. Her farm, in Lisbon Falls, sold every subscription to its CSA program early into the pandemic and has gotten a big additional bump through Farmdrop, an online platform for consumers to order local farm products.
The recent bustle at Snell Farm and Little Ridge fits the bigger picture, according to Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Maine Local Market Report. Demand for spring greens outpaced supply earlier this year. Shoppers snapped up meat and dairy. By the start of summer, as more vegetables came into season, both farm-stand and farmers-market sales surpassed expectations, and many farms reported that they couldn’t keep up.
With typical items in short supply, home cooks started branching out — one Maine Local Market Report noted a “willingness to try new things and embrace seasonality.” Niche products that normally go to restaurants — bok choy, microgreens, mini broccoli — found a new audience (although the general public’s adventurousness still has limits, and sales of specialty carrots and edible flowers dropped). Penny Jordan is a fourth-generation owner of Jordan’s Farm, in Cape Elizabeth, which opened two months early to meet the pandemic-driven demand. She saw a huge uptick in people seeking seedlings — other farmers did too — and she suspects that cooped-up Mainers, noticing produce shortages and reading news about risks to national supply chains, started so-called “resiliency gardens,” keeping a source of food in their own backyards.
This summer, farmers face a new challenge: guessing how long the boom will last. “Our dilemma is whether we should spend the time doing extra planting now,” Tracy says. She fears ending up with a surplus come fall and winter. What if home cooks scale back after restaurants reopen? Will they keep buying locally for as long as the pandemic lasts? What about after? “My desire is that people won’t forget this,” Jordan says. “If we can create a really secure and stable food system, we’ll be able to insulate ourselves against another crisis.”
Hankering for fresh veggies, fruit, meat, dairy, and seafood? To help Mainers buy local during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UMaine Cooperative Extension website now hosts a map-based directory of producers.