Local farmers and community work to maintain economy

Chester County farms struggle to meet challenges of virus.

The novel coronavirus has been a source of disruption in this country and across the globe since March of 2020 with many countries effectively shutting down and requiring people to stay home and limit their interactions with each other. The goal at the outset was to “flatten the curve,” a term meant to convey the importance of delaying the inevitable surge of sick people that would overwhelm the healthcare system. At the time no one could have predicted the impact such measures would have on daily life nor its impact on the economy.

There were things we could predict like the impact school closing would have on graduating seniors or kindergartners but there were also the unforeseen problems like supply chain issues and stores running out of toilet paper.

In Pennsylvania the Governor has issued new orders that will once again put a burden on already struggling industries. Agriculture was one of those industries that was hit hard, because of the interconnected nature of our farm economy across the country. Here in the suburban counties of Philadelphia most people would not think of farming but places like Two Gander Farm in Chester County found themselves facing some unique challenges.

About a five minute drive from the Downingtown exit on Route 30 Trey and Deirdre Flemming operate a certified organic farm where they grow fresh produce that they sell at farmers markets and to wholesale grocery chains. They also grow food for 200 CSA members or Community Supported Agriculture. CSA is a model in which members will buy shares during the winter, which gives the Flemmings the upfront capital they need to purchase seeds and supplies they would need for the upcoming season. In return the members receive 23 straight weeks of food that they can pick up from the farm or at the farmers market.

“So it’s a really great way for members to be in close relationship with their farmer, where they’re literally providing upfront capital for us. And we get to feed them,” Deirdre explained.

The Flemmings do not own the land. They lease it from a land trust. They have been farming together for 15 years and have been in their current location since the winter of 2013. They also have school age children who when the schools were closed had to stay home, which created an added burden on the family.

When the stay-at-home orders were issued it became difficult for them to sell their produce at farmers markets, so they had to find another way to sell their produce. While they had a website set up for a portion of their business its focus was not on selling. This became one of many barriers for them.

“Normally we tried to make that shift in our normal life without COVID that would go before a consultant. We would take that idea and say, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to transition to online sales,’” said Deirdre. “Hey, what are the pros and cons here? Is this a good idea? We had no time to do any research.”

For Trey the timing could not have been worse. “And particularly the timing, I think, was one of the busiest times of the year for us is we’re really starting to ramp up our production, replanting, just getting into the fields, and then having to reinvent a business plan. And right at the beginning of the execution of a season, it was it was quite overwhelming to, you know, try to make that shift.”

Having minor children at home and having to reinvent their business is difficult under any circumstance and the Flemmings were doing both while also putting 80-100 hours a week on the farm. Diedre was doing closer to 80 hours because of the kids and working on the business end of the farm.

“That just starts to snowball out of control. And that’s what happened for a lot of people. And some people were able to adapt and really just grab on it depended. Do they have children? Did they not have children? Like, did they have the right kind of employment help?” said Dierdre.

Back in March as the country went into aggressive mitigation the federal government closed the borders. This coincides with the arrival of migrant workers from Central and South America. The Flemmings had been working with a family in Peru. For Trey that help was vital to the success of their farm, “They were a pleasure to work with. They have developed a skill set that really was tailored to our farm and our production system, and in many ways, they were they were able to run the production of the produce on the farm, you know, with very little direction.”

For Chester County agriculture is a larger part of their economy than the other suburban counties. They generate $600 million annual in revenue and contribute $3 billion annually through sales, employment, taxes and services. Back in January the newly elected county commissioners were not expecting to have to deal with a pandemic. Early on Marian Moskowitz consulted with the county health department as well as with economic stakeholders to make sure they were prepared.

“And we set up a taskforce immediately, and it included all of our regional partners, our chambers of commerce, our Visitors Bureau, the township and municipal authorities, and our government employees, our health directors, and we started reaching out to bring 21 industry sectors to the table very early on, to make sure that we are providing them with the best information that we could as to how they could stay open safely,” said Moskowitz. “And that was the time of our very first death, which was just horrible. For me personally. That was an emotional thing for me. Because I came into this knowing that I needed to protect 522,000 people. And, you know, it’s just part of the job. And when you lose somebody that isn’t in the normal course of what a commissioner does, it’s very, it’s tough. It’s tough.”

15 miles to the south of Downingtown is Kennett Square, known as the mushroom capital of the world. There they have a large migrant community and Hispanic community that relies on agriculture to make a living for themselves and for their family in their country of origin. So it was important for Moskowitz and the county to do something to address their needs. The health department worked with farms and non-profit organizations that worked in the Hispanic community to go to farms and test their workers to make sure everyone could stay safe.

“And with our farmers, you know, they didn’t want to risk losing people either, because that is their livelihood. The dairy farms have really struggled. They have just struggled so and we lost some during this process. I think that the farms that are mid-size, are struggling the most. And we’ll see if they can come back. We have lost a few but I’m hoping that they can come back,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz talked about how the closing of schools really impacted farms who sold milk and fresh produce to the schools. This placed more of a burden on farms and required the local government’s help. The county created Restore Chester County, a website that tried to help business and residents in Chester County

“We give them support with certainly with their workers. And certainly, we are the connector for the state and helping them with some funds that come through for them, they do get some cares dollars.”

While the county tried to give farms other opportunities and help to connect them with residents who were out of work it was not always an easy fit. At Two Gander Farm the loss of their regular worker forced them to find help from other places.

“We also had to scramble to find replacement workers for this family of our most experienced workers that just weren’t going to be coming to the farm. And we spent, I admittedly spent far too long hoping that this would pass enough that they would eventually make it and we were trying to do damage control,” said Trey when asked about finding help from people out of work due to the stay-at-home order.

“We also had to scramble to find replacement workers for this family of our most experienced workers that just weren’t going to be coming to the farm. And we spent, I admittedly spent far too long hoping that this would pass enough that they would eventually make it and we were trying to do damage control,” Deirdre said.

These added barriers increased the work load for both Trey and Deirdre. They were putting in 80-100 hours a week. During the heigh of the stay-at-home order while most people where binge watching Netflix and talking about Tiger King the Flemmings were still working like any other year if not harder. But their hard work paid off because by the fall they had salvaged their season and were heading into the winter having a better idea what to expect next year.