While other segments of the local food industry suffered immensely from the pandemic in the last year, farmers, by and large, made out OK. That success wasn’t without hand-wringing though; farmers had to shift business models, create CSA programs out of the blue, construct pop-up farm stands and navigate rapidly changing consumer habits.
Perhaps no farm-related entity pivoted as much as the Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM), which launched curbside pickup, reduced in-person attendance capacity, curtailed some markets and launched a first-time winter program to keep the community engaged with local food producers.
Now that harvest is well over — though you can still get greenhouse greens, radishes, squashes and more from local producers via BCFM — farmers are taking a deep breath (quickly) and planning for a new season with a still-uncertain market.
Brian Coppom, BCFM executive director, says farmers are spending this month browsing seed catalogs, planning grow areas and thinking about any changes in consumer habits brought on by the pandemic.
It’d be a stretch to say farming is pandemic-proof, but Coppom says things look mostly the same for farmers this January.
“I think for the farmers this winter looks a lot like it has in winters past,” he says. “They’re [asking] what are we going to plant this year, is there something that’ll give us a competitive advantage? Is there something we want more of?”
Coppom says most farmers in the local agriculture scene diversify crops, which means, for instance, if they plant carrots on a parcel of land one year, they might plant beans in that spot the next year, which improves the soil.
Farmers are also diving into seed catalogs and working with suppliers to find reliable seeds for this climate — a success rate of about 95% is what farmers are looking for. Thus, they tend to rely on sources that have worked for them in the past, like MASA Seed Foundation, a Boulder-based nonprofit that develops seeds that do well in Colorado’s climate.
In addition to MASA, farmers in Boulder County reach for the Johnny’s Selected Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds catalogs. You, as a home gardener, can order from all these sources as well.
Coppom says there’s a growing movement toward seed sharing between local farms, but what makes it difficult is, first, ensuring the seeds are viable for a farmers’ plot of land, and second, it takes a lot of crop for a farm to be able to save seed for itself, let alone sell to others.
Competition may factor into it too — though local producers, by and large, support one another, farmers can be protective of certain crops if they pick the right variety and it’s a hit at the market.
“At the market it could be more difficult to differentiate yourself than at your farm stand or CSA because you’re going to be surrounded by other farmers with the same product,” Coppom says. “With that, there are varieties that some growers have that they hold pretty close to the vest. Sometimes growers see other varieties doing well and they start growing them.”
Planning for the upcoming market season is a bit like hitting a moving target. Coppom says BCFM plans to open on-time in April, but farmers have to consider consumer habits, restaurant capacity and a host of other factors when deciding how they’re going to sell their products this year.
“I imagine for most farmers right now, they’re still planning on having low restaurant sales at the beginning of the year. Most likely we won’t see restaurant business return until mid-2021,” he says. “I think a number of farms are expanding their CSAs, so they’re going to see if they can’t release CSA applications earlier. A number of them are still going on with farm stands. They’re going to think about, what do their distribution channels look like next year? How much do they put on their CSA? How much do they bring to their farm stands? How are they going to reengage with restaurants?”
Ultimately, Coppom is hopeful for 2021. BCFM is currently reviewing applicants for the markets, both growers and packaged food producers. BCFM survived with reduced revenue this year, and Coppom is excited to reopen, under COVID restrictions, and reconnect the community to local food producers.
“We have a handful of new growers who have applied to the market, which is always exciting because we love to see the grower population increasing in Boulder County,” he says. “New bakeries and other businesses are applying. We’re excited for a new year.”