Local food producers are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more concerned customers want to make sure they not only have access to food, but know where it’s coming from.
Empty store shelves and concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus are drawing more people to community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Under the subscription-style program offered by local farmers, customers are guaranteed a box of the freshest in-season produce.
Evan Barry grows organic vegetables on Down River Farm in East Peoria. Barry said CSAs are always a big part of their business, especially early in the growing season.
This year, Down River Farm expanded its CSA program from 35 people up to 50 — but that still wasn't enough to accommodate the demand. Barry said he's getting more emails asking to join the program than he's able to keep up with.
“I’ve definitely been weighing if I should accept more to guarantee that income, depending on what happens in the future,” he said. “But I also don’t want the experience to be that people get worse fares just because there’s more people. I want the quality to be maintained.”
Down River Farm is a small operation. Barry grows on two acres, with the help of one full-time and one part-time employee. And their yield stretches across a number of venues.
Barry said they try to balance about half their business on farmers markets sales. Another 30% is allocated for CSAs, while retailers — like Sous Chef in downtown Peoria — and restaurants each get around 10% of the harvest.
“Because we are so small, we’ve always had the intention of wanting to sell out of most of what we grow,” he said. “But it’s a lot more managing a lot different market streams now.”
He said some customers want to come out to the farm, while others are avoiding retail shops or the farmers market. Some people have health concerns, and even more want to know what’s being done to mitigate the risk of spreading coronavirus.
Still, Barry said, business is good. They’re selling more than the previous three years Down River Farm’s been around, and are even able to move produce that usually doesn’t sell. He said it’s hard to tell how much of that is a natural evolution of the business or a symptom of the virus.
“It is hard to know how lasting these changes will be,” Barry said. “Is this going to be the norm? Because I think a lot of people are getting turned on [to local food]. Going to the grocery store and seeing empty shelves, they all of the sudden are facing the stark reality that longer supply chains are not as resilient of a food system.”
Regardless, Barry said, they’re working to maximize production on the farm — interplanting where possible and strategizing which staple foods will be most needed. In the meantime, he said, they’re asking customers to be patient and recognize that growing food locally takes time.
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