Local Farmers Are Absolutely Essential
Over the past few months, I have written articles supporting the Carmel Farmers Market and highlighting its continued dedication to the community by pivoting around the pandemic to meet the needs of its customers and vendors. Carmel Monthly has been a longtime supporter of the market and the long list of loyal vendors who have come out every Saturday to sell their products, all of whom would have had limited options, or no options, as to where they could sell their products if the market had not been classified as “essential” throughout the shutdown created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a person who is in the high-risk population and has been confined to my home since March, I experienced firsthand the challenge of getting fresh and nutritious foods delivered to my home in the early stages of the shutdown. The local grocery stores in my town were depleted of the produce, dairy and proteins that my family typically consumes, and the third-party delivery services were either not readily available to my neighborhood or were unable to “hunt down” the items that I was desperately seeking to feed my family. If it hadn’t been for the local farmers and purveyors making their products available to the Carmel Farmers Market, for the kinds souls who’ve delivered locally produced items to my home and for the online market/retailer services that specialize in selling locally produced products to nonwholesale customers, I’m quite certain that I would not have had immediate access to common things like chicken, lettuce, milk, cheeses and many other basic items that I took for granted prepandemic.
So, I’d like to extend a personal “thank you” to all of CFM’s farmers and purveyors for your continued service to Hoosier families and to share with our readers why supporting local farmers is imperative to the local food supply.
How COVID-19 Has Affected Local Farms
I spoke with two Indiana farmers and vendors of CFM about how the pandemic has impacted their ability to process and sell their products—in these cases, meat. As you may recall, once the news hit that national producers were shutting down their processing plants due to COVID-19 contagion, it became nearly impossible to find many meat cuts and chicken products that would have otherwise been in abundance. Couple that with the general public’s overbuying spurts, and voila—there was a shortage.
What many may not realize is what was going on behind the scenes on small- to medium-size local farms during the onset of the pandemic and how much worse it could have been had these local farmers not been paying attention to the impending shift in the nation’s food supply chain.
Phelps Family Farm and Becker Farms on Pivoting Amid Pandemic
Joe Phelps shared his thoughts on the pandemic and how it impacted his farming and packaging practices
“I could see that it [pandemic panic] was coming, and I had our normal amount of hogs and cattle scheduled to butcher,” Phelps shared. “I saw how things were starting to shut down, and I doubled everything I could get in to slaughter. And then I booked out for one year when usually I would book out six months. Looking back, if I could’ve, I would’ve added even more. Once the pandemic hit and people panicked, it didn’t take long before we were overwhelmed by the demand. We had people wanting to buy hundreds of pounds of meat, and we had to put a limit on what people could have.”
Phelps added that now—six months later—they’re still working their way through a list of people wanting freezer beef and hogs.
“Six months later and the demand is still there,” Phelps reiterated. “I think people are eating more at home, and the demand for the product from the farmer will continue rather than from the restaurant. We’ve got a restaurant chain that we supply eggs to, and that dropped off to next to nothing—during the shutdown—and went from 300 dozen a week to zero. Fortunately, the demand was there from the consumer, and we were able to move those eggs.”
While farms like Phelps and Becker Farms are able to fulfill orders through Market Wagon—a home delivery service that works with local farms and purveyors—they heavily rely on the farmers markets such as CFM to get their products in front of consumers.
“We’ve been doing the markets for 22 years,” Phelps said. “We are always at the Carmel Farmers Market. And just because the meat is available in the grocery stores doesn’t mean you have to drop us. Please stay with the small guys because the small guys still need the support. If everybody goes back to Walmart, there won’t be a little guy.”
Kyle Becker added, “The date I will always look back on is March 13. That’s when Tom Hanks was on all the morning shows announcing he was COVID-19 positive. My first thought was ‘Americans don’t like stress.’ And I thought, ‘We’d better get ready.’ I equate it to living on the coast and hearing there was an earthquake in Africa. You can’t see the big wave coming, but it’s on its way. So, I sprang into action.”
Becker explained that prior to the onset of pandemic, 70% of his product was wholesale.
“I started converting to retail packaging. We knew the schools would be sending everybody home, and so we had to get our products repackaged for retail. Our retail customers—farmers market and Market Wagon—buy 1- to 2-pound packages versus the 10-pound packages we sell to colleges. My wife [Emily] gets most of the credit because she bagged all of the orders until midnight and would leave at 5 to 6 a.m. to start making deliveries.”
Becker explained the big mystery behind why the national processors and commercial farms weren’t able to pivot on a dime like smaller and locally owned farms could.
“Those plants are built to where they have to have 80 to 90% employment in order for the line to run,” Becker said. “At a small plant, if you lose somebody, you can slow down, and everybody else on the line compensates. Those plants are super-specialized and can only do certain things and only have packaging and USDA-approved labels for certain things. Those plants don’t have the machines, logistics or approval to produce a 1-pound package that you sell at the grocery store, and the pandemic would’ve been over
by the time the USDA got their label approved. It’s a whole process that got thrown on its head, and that’s why the local food movement stepped in and filled in the cracks.”
Becker concluded, “We need the customers to have access to us, and Ron [Carter] and the volunteer staff at CFM graciously took the time to open up the market and figured out how to do it responsibly so that the customers can continue to access our products.”
For a complete list of vendors at the Carmel Farmers Market, visit carmelfarmersmarket.com.