When life gives a farmer a pandemic, he makes cheese and donates it.
This pandemic has highlighted many weaknesses in our global food system, including food shortages and the need for more resilient, local food systems. For one artisanal cheese maker in the North East, however, these problems created a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how local food can solve pandemic-related food supply problems.
In today’s podcast, we speak with Pete Messmer, Head Cheesemaker at Lively Run Dairy in Interlaken, NY, about how Coronavirus has affected his business. The farm processes milk from roughly 600 goats from around the area into a variety of artisanal cheeses that it supplies to local restaurants as well as producing cow’s milk cheese.
Messmer walks through the history of the dairy and then talks with us about how the business has expanded to supplying local restaurants through wholesale accounts. Once the pandemic hit, though, the wholesale business dried up as restaurants closed their dining rooms and consumers quarantined.
For a small farm, the loss of so many wholesale accounts can be devastating. Many farms have found themselves trying to pivot to direct-to-consumer sales in recent months, but this requires a lot of inputs, like starting an online ordering system, retooling certain processes to fill orders that are much smaller than wholesale orders, and more. It also means that product that would normally be moving to restaurants is now just sitting on the shelves without anyone to purchase or consume it.
At the same time, production on the farm has not slowed down. Crops that were planted well before the virus took hold of the world and animals who will continue to produce meat and milk are unaware of what’s happening in the food system. Tragically, some livestock producers are being asked to euthanize their livestock processing facilities and close their doors following outbreaks of the virus.
Messmer realized a perfect opportunity amid all the hardship to help local food banks and keep the dairy running in the meantime. During mid-April, Lively Run launched a Go Fund Me campaign to raise $20,000 to cover the cost of purchasing surplus milk from local dairies (who were beginning to resort to dumping) to turn it into cheese to donate to local food banks. The campaign met its goal within only three days. As of May 4, Lively Run has raised over $44,000 from over 700 donors on their page. With these funds, the dairy anticipates donating roughly 7,000 pounds of cheese.
To help entertain and educate, Lively Run has also been hosting a Virtual Cheese Hour led by Messmer via Facebook Live.
Local farms are filling gaps in the supply chain during the pandemic
Farmers across the United States are rising to the occasion and trying to keep consumers’ pantries full. In New Mexico, a farm-to-food-bank program has popped up to try and connect farms to consumers who are willing to buy their products. The program purchases fresh vegetables from a cooperative of small-scale, sustainable farms throughout New Mexico and delivers their food to Roadrunner food bank, the largest food bank in New Mexico. The program is also providing farms other essentials, like personal protective equipment.
American Farm Bureau Federation is also partnering with feeding America to urge the USDA to make it easier for farmers to donate food they cannot currently sell to restaurants, hotels, schools, and universities. These donations would help food banks meet the rising demand for food for people who have lost their jobs or are experiencing other financial hardship related to the pandemic.
Under existing laws, often referred to as the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, individuals who donate food to nonprofit organizations are sheltered from liability if anything happens arising from the consumption of the donated food. The donated food must meet certain requirements, and comply with local health, food safety, and food handling regulations. Many food suppliers, including restaurants in farmers, are often unaware of the protections that this rule provides.
In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue, Farm Bureau and Feeding America proposed a USDA-run voucher system that would allow farmers and ranchers to work directly with food banks to get farm-fresh products quickly to families in need, while also preventing food waste and helping farmers recoup some of their production costs at a time when they are fighting to hold on.
Farm Bureau and Feeding America also noted that such a program would simply be an expansion of existing partnerships farmers and ranchers have with food banks. A voucher system, coupled with some necessary regulatory tweaks that keep food safety paramount, would allow farmers and food banks to work directly with one another instead of relying upon third parties, which sometimes delays the farm-to-food bank timeline.
“Farmers hope this effort helps provide more food to the increasing number of struggling families throughout the country,” Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said. “The program would also help farmers, who are struggling themselves, at least recover some of what they put into planting and harvesting. Without restaurants, hotels and other outlets to sell their produce to, farmers in many cases can’t afford to pick their fruits or pull their vegetables from the ground.”