Growing Pains

Illumination Special Project |The Urban Food Project

Circle Left and Do Si Do

eggs image by Andy M on Pixabay

The sudden appearance of Covid-19 took everyone by surprise. Farmers have been especially hit hard. Their entire distribution structure has been shaken and some aren’t sure if they will be able to make it through.

They’re trying to learn a new dance.

Here’s a recent headline from Pennsylvania:

Sell 30,000 eggs or euthanize your chickens: Lehigh Valley farmers look for public’s support during coronavirus pandemic.

By Christina Tatu -THE MORNING CALL

It’s a familiar headline. I’ve heard of farmers dumping excess milk or plowing fields of produce under. On the other hand there’s a huge increase in demand at food banks.

Wait, what?

At first glance, people are surprised. There’s a misconception that farmers should give away their excess food. It is assumed they would keep production levels the same, even though they’ve lost their buyers. After all, we clearly need the food.

Farmers Dumping Food vs Increased Demand for Food.

How is this happening?

We’ve created a food industry that encourages large farms that focus on supplying food processors, not consumers. There are fewer local farms and markets to fall back on.

Processing plants are under pressure to close due to workers getting sick with the virus. There are gaps in food distribution. The new protocols required in the industry are costly and may take time to implement.

The workers that harvest, process, stock and deliver food are being impacted by the virus too. This is a problem of our own creation.

Let’s get back to the farmer with the extra eggs.

That farmer usually sells his eggs to a facility that processes and packages them as liquid eggs for restaurants. Restaurants are down to takeout orders only, so they’re no longer purchasing high quantities. There are leftover eggs.

30,000 excess eggs every day. That’s a mountain of eggs.

When your chickens produce such a high volume and suddenly your major buyer isn’t buying, it’s a huge problem. An all hands on deck moment.

An egg avalanche.

It costs the farmer money to produce the food. The chickens need to be fed and he has to pay the workers to clean and package the eggs.

But, people still need to eat. Why not sell directly to them?

It’s often a distribution thing. How do you find a large number of new buyers quickly? Farmers have to be light on their feet and make arrangements with grocery stores. It’s a dance and he has to learn the new steps.

It’s tricky for a large farm to pivot.

There are different rules and regulations when you sell directly to a store or to the public. An egg washing machine is needed and you might need different packaging and more staff. Finding new markets takes time and there are delivery costs to take into account.

Some farmers are locked into contracts with big buyers. Retail stores have different preferences and needs.

And the excess piles up. Imagine 30,000 extra eggs every day. And it all costs money. Eventually the farmer is forced to make some hard decisions.

Allemande left and Do Si Do.

Buy local.

Environmentalists have been saying this for years. Support your local farmers. Grow your own food.

One example was the 100 mile diet. A Canadian couple, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, made a commitment to consume only foods grown within 100 miles of their apartment in the city of Vancouver for one year. They included ingredients in packaged food in the challenge.

Eventually they wrote a book about their experience.

100 Mile Diet — by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon

A local initiative in Victoria, B.C. is focusing on small gardens in the city. They are called Food Eco District (FED) and their goal is to support families and laid off workers by providing home-based start up food garden kits. They even come and install the garden to get you going.

There are some advantages to this food crisis.

People are seeing the possible vulnerabilities in our food supply. They’re discovering where their food really comes from.

My hope is that this awareness help us focus on building stronger local food security with a balance on imports and exports.

And more people will buy local.

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