Apr 30, 2020 - Economy

How to save small farmers from the coronavirus

Illustration of a pitchfork in a farmer's cowboy hat

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Regional food is a kind of language. It lives through hard-earned knowledge and practice, shared among a sufficiently large group of people, passed on through generations.

Why it matters: It can die of neglect. Or, it turns out, of COVID-19.

Chef and author Dan Barber, of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns Westchester, has been at the center of the vital American farm-to-table movement for 15 years. He recently did a formal survey of local farmers in New York's Hudson Valley, where he works.

  • The early results are terrifying: 90% of the farmers anticipate they will go out of business if restaurants are forced to operate at 50% capacity during the height of harvest season this summer.
  • If that happens, decades of work and effort could be lost. "The neural connections to this movement, once shattered, do not return," Barber tells "Axios on HBO."
  • "It is the tsunami. It's coming," Barber said.

Context: Small farmers aren't the people sending pork and soy to China, or turning wheat into ethanol. Rather, they are the people who provided the basis for what, until last month, was a thriving ecosystem of delicious and inventive regional cuisines, based around farmers' markets and ambitious local restaurants.

  • Restaurants acted as food processing plants, taking large quantities of raw agricultural material and turning it into something ordinary folks were happy to pay a lot of money to eat.

The big picture: Only the government can save small farmers in the short term. But in the longer term, Barber now sees a need for robust regional supply chains — a group of middlemen, milling and curing and packaging raw ingredients and selling them via local supermarkets to consumers. Such a chain would reduce farmers' reliance on restaurants to process their food.

  • Craft beer is a great example of a regional agricultural industry that is doing much better than the national and international brands.
  • "In a regional food system, the value of what's grown on the farm is extended through the process," says Barber. "You actually value the food and the farming all the way through the chain."

How it works: A regional food system, based on regional supply chains and regional food processors, would be more expensive and less efficient than the current system. But it would also be more robust to pandemics and natural disasters: A single point of failure could not knock out the entire network.

  • Better yet, the food produced in such a system would be significantly more delicious and characterful.

The bottom line: There is hope for small farmers — if they can get through the current crisis. But that's a very big if.

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