Small farmers quickly adapt to fill a need during pandemic

Levity Farms owners Zach and Ilana Richards pose for a photo with their 6-month-old daughter Harlyn and their dog Freedom at Levity Farms in Alpharetta. The couple is in the process of moving to a larger property in Madison. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Zach Richards had just started an internship at a farm in North Georgia when he called his friend Ilana to join him. She fell in love with farming, and Zach, and in 2017, they launched Levity Farms on 2.5 acres of rented land in Alpharetta. It didn’t take long for them to find their niche growing items such as edible flowers, specialty greens and heirloom tomatoes with the chef-focused market in mind. Soon, they were running out of food before they could fulfill orders from local chefs. In 2018, they married. In 2019, they had a baby girl, and in 2020, they, like many other small farmers across the state, were hit by the impact of the new coronavirus pandemic.

When restaurants closed, Levity Farms went from planning to provide 75% to 80% of their produce to chefs to spending one day a week traversing the metro area to deliver veggie boxes to private homes. “It is in the nature of farming to be resilient to changes in the market or changes in the climate,” said Ilana Richards as she made deliveries on a recent Tuesday. “It is one of our strengths in this industry if we are going to be good farmers or successful farmers.”

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The pandemic has uncovered weaknesses in the food supply chain, causing disruptions in the production and distribution of food. Unable to get food to market, farmers have destroyed produce and euthanized animals even as grocery store shelves sit empty. For many Americans, it is the first time experiencing the fragility of the food system, and for the industry, it is a time to determine how to build a more resilient system in the future.

In the U.S., fewer than 4% of farms are responsible for two-thirds of the agricultural production, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. One-third of all producers in Georgia are beginning farmers (10 or fewer years of experience), and 11% of farms in the state are less than 10 acres. Farms of all sizes have struggled during the pandemic, but many smaller operations in Georgia have adapted quickly, finding new markets and building a new business model that reflects the changing times.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue acknowledged the disruptions to the food supply chain during his podcast earlier this month. The USDA in April announced a $19 billion COVID-19 relief initiative that would include $16 billion in direct pay to farmers as well as funds to purchase and distribute food to communities in need. But previous trade bailout funds flowed to larger farms rather than small to medium-sized family farms because the awards are based on production, said Perdue in a recent interview.

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Several statewide efforts are underway to help small farmers. On May 1, Georgia Organics and partner organizations kicked off a round of funding for the Farmer Fund, assistance usually reserved for natural disasters, with the hopes of raising $200,000 for farmers by the end of May. The state Department of Agriculture and UGA Extension have collaborated to help farmers — particularly smaller growers and producers — connect with buyers.

Levity Farms co-owner Zach Richards stacks prepared produce orders that are ready to be delivered from their farm in Alpharetta. The pandemic forced them to temporarily shift their business from providing 75% to 80% of their produce to local chefs to a more consumer focused home delivery model. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Earlier this year, a grant from Food Well Alliance, an organization that supports community-driven agriculture, helped Levity Farms upgrade their irrigation and greenhouses, said Ilana Richards, which they would not have been able to fund based on spring sales. They are now in the process of moving operations to a 10-acre farm in Madison, southeast of Atlanta, where they’ve already planted summer crops. Though they expect a lull in sales because of COVID-19 and the move, they are maintaining relationships with chefs in the metro area and plan to expand their business next year, Richards said.

Small operations have to have a solid distribution strategy, strong relationships with policymakers and the know-how to tell their stories, said Will Sellers, executive director of Wholesome Wave Georgia.

“Just shooting a piece of kale and posting it on your website is not enough. Unless you have the resources to compete, you will not survive. Unless you are willing to collaborate and work with partners you haven’t worked with before, you will not survive,” Sellers said. The path will likely be easier for farms that have a for-profit model, said Sellers, but everyone — regardless of sector or size — will have to rethink how they operate.

Atlanta Harvest Farms co-owner EliYahu Ysrael, 25, stands for a photo in the open-air market area at Atlanta Harvest Farms in Jonesboro. That will soon be moving to property in Ellenwood. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

EliYahu Ysrael, a second-generation farmer, began working with his father at Local Lands, a 40-acre organic farm near Dublin where they grow fruits and vegetables and raise chickens, cows and sheep. A second location in Jonesboro, Atlanta Harvest, which boasts an outdoor market, will soon move to Ellenwood. Restaurant closures from the pandemic brought a large drop in the farm’s wholesale business. “We saw people rushing to the stores and preparing to stay home, and almost immediately my father said we have to transition to home delivery,” Ysrael said. Expanding their delivery from as far north as Gwinnett and as far south as Warner Robins has helped them more than double their subscriptions, Ysrael said. They expect sign-ups to triple in the next week.

Farmers markets around the state are generating five to 10 times more sales than they normally would during this time of year as consumers clamor for fresh foods, according to data from Georgia Organics. Freewheel Farm, which has three locations in metro Atlanta, opened its farm stand early when store shelves began going bare in late March, said owner Brent Hall. They implemented a number of safety and health protocols before shifting the entire operation online.

>> Read More: Your complete guide to 2020 metro Atlanta farmers markets

“I have never accepted any form of payment through our website. It is not my thing, but I have had to adapt and change,” Hall said. “We are doing 30% more business than we were doing at this time last year,” he said. “I am hopeful that this is not just a trend or a quick fix for people before they go back to business as usual.”

But as large conventional producers also seek opportunities in the local food system, small farmers could be left out, said Alice Rolls, president and CEO of Georgia Organics.

Some small farmers have had challenges applying for programs with the Small Business Administration but last week the SBA reopened the Economic Injury Disaster Loan to farmers, providing low-interest $10,000 loans. “That may not be much money for a multimillion-dollar operation, but for our farmers, that is big,” Rolls said. “The good news is, farmers are not losing their jobs yet. We want to make sure they are stable and are getting the support they need.”

Atlanta Harvest Farms co-owner EliYahu Ysrael, 25, displays a produce box that is available for purchase at Atlanta Harvest Farms in Jonesboro. Atlanta Harvest Farms started to focus more on delivering produce boxes during the COVID-19 pandemic and expanded the number of cities they serve in the metro area. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The cost for a delivery truck with cooling capabilities can run up to $25,000, and in recent weeks, the cost of some heirloom and organic seeds has quadrupled. Willie Miller of Miller City Farm, a 4.5-acre farm in South Fulton, had the foresight to buy extra seeds before prices skyrocketed. When things began shutting down in March, the farm’s box subscriptions sold out in three days. Many of those sales came from new customers, Miller said.

Terri Jagger Blincoe of Ladybug Farms on 14 acres in Rabun County had already begun transitioning her farm before the pandemic began. “I don’t want to get bigger in the growing department. I have the space and infrastructure, but I want to do more teaching and education,” she said.

Like many other small farmers, she hopes a change in consumer attitudes will help fuel changes to the larger food system. “COVID-19 is going to ultimately be a huge boon for small farmers once we figure it out,” Blincoe said. “It is just elevating the importance and the value of the work that we all do.”

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