#AskOnetoGrowOn 6: COVID19 Edition Transcript
Chris: Hey, listener. Hallie and Chris here. At some point, Hallie’s track has a bunch of clicking noise. It comes and goes. There’s not a whole lot of it. I don’t know what caused it. I didn’t know how to get rid of it. I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of good stuff in this episode, so I hope you listen anyway and we’ll see you again in our Tuesday episode on persimmons.
Hallie: Hello and welcome to Ask One to Grow On our mini episode series where I answer your questions, queries, and concerns. Today, we actually have two guests on which we don’t usually do for Ask One to Grow On episodes, but it’s kind of a special topic and I really wanted to get their input and their feedback and then just include them in the process of kind of asking these questions and then answering them together. Today on Ask One to Grow On we have Chris Casey.
Chris: Hello. I’m Hallie’s dad.
Hallie: Our first ever normie guest, Joanna Casey, my very own sister.
Hallie: We actually have a lot of questions today. This was inspired by actually Joanna which is why she’s here because she has had a lot of questions and conversations with friends and people about how the COVID-19 virus is impacting the agricultural supply system and the food system more generally and so I thought maybe she could collate some questions for us and we could just go through and talk about it. If you don’t want to listen to more virus talk, no hard feelings, we have a new episode coming out on Tuesday that is not going to be virus related at all. But this was just something that’s really topical and so I wanted to kind of get two folks on the horn and chat through and just kind of talk through in process a little bit. Jo, do you want to kick us off with our first question?
Joanna: Sure. Okay. I think probably the most common thing that I’ve been asked in the past couple I don’t know week or two weeks or so is what’s going on with restaurants? One of my close friends just asked me there aren’t restaurants at the end of a really big agricultural supply chain that’s different and not connected to grocery stores. How are those farmers who usually supply to restaurants doing? What are they doing now?
Hallie: Yeah, that was a great question. I want to say first off, there’s not a lot of national or international data at all on how this is impacting specific sectors of the economy. Like we can see the stock market generally is not doing well, but looking more specifically at agriculture and how is this impacting farmers? I have info on how it’s working in Austin through my work that I’m doing at my job, but I don’t have information beyond that other than I’m on some listservs and I’ve been reading some white papers and some letters that different national organizations have been putting together. I’ve been trying to tune into the conversation, but there’s not any data at all. What I’ve been seeing is farmers that are selling and which are already set up to sell direct to consumer are doing really well right now. People aren’t eating out. People are purchasing more grocery goods and people are trying to continue to eat healthy and so those farmers that were selling at farmers’ markets or had CSA set up or were doing delivery options are doing really, really well. Farmers that were selling exclusively to restaurants have lost 100% of their client base and are having a really hard time pivoting to completely change their marketing operation. That’s what I’m seeing currently.
Joanna: Okay. I’m so confused. What’s a CSA and how do farmers sell directly to consumers when they’re not at a farmers’ market?
Hallie: Yeah, so the CSA stands for community supported agriculture and basically you can as a person or as a family or sometimes like friends will split it between multiple people. You just get a share of general veggies. It’s like a premade box that is whatever we’re harvesting we split it between 50 people or 100 people or whoever, however many shares we have in our CSA and you get a box and you don’t necessarily know what’s in it every week.
Joanna: Just like a random box of seasonal veggies.
Hallie: Yeah, it’s like what’s in season now. It can include eggs. It can include meat, but usually it’s just going to be veggies. Sometimes you get some fruit in there as well.
Chris: Unfortunately, it can also include okra.
Hallie: Yeah, there’re jokes among people who subscribed to CSA. Cabbage and okra and kale and some of these things where it’s just kind of dead of winter crops and when they come, they come in the hundreds and so then you’re just eating nothing but pounds and pounds of cabbage for two or three weeks.
Joanna: What are farmers who were completely sourced to restaurants doing? Are they being able to set up their own CSA systems? At least in Austin I know that’s the only site that you can speak to, but is there something that they’re being able to do to pivot and directly sell now to a consumer?
Hallie: One of the things that’s been really cool about working at my job during the pandemic is that personally I’m kind of in the front lines of seeing all of the amazing ways that people are trying to support their food system here in Austin. Like at my organization we have farmer’s markets, so we have a pretty large network of farmers and I am kind of the designated person to field other market inquiries, so I get emails almost daily of people being like, “Hey, I have this app that I’m trying to connect farmers to customers” or like, “Hey, I have this restaurant or I have this grocery store” or, “Hey, I’m trying this new thing and we’re trying to buy from local farmers because we know that people are hurting.”
Joanna: Oh, very cool.
Hallie: It’s amazing. Here in Austin there’re a lot of really cool options for farmers and part of what I’m doing at my job is trying to reach out and connect with those farmers that are selling directly to restaurants and helping them pivot their operation because it’s really like a weird thing to do. I mean, it would be weird for any business if you have a client base and you know exactly who they are and you’ve been working with them for years and then they just all disappear and you have to completely try and start a new strategy for selling your products.
Hallie: It’s a really weird thing for a farmer to do and they’re also in the middle of planting season so there’s dealing with a lot right now and they’re also dealing with labor shortage because folks are having a hard time coming out if they are an at risk population or if they care for someone in their home that’s in an at risk population. There’s a lot of interesting options. Usually, farmers that are selling directly to restaurants are smaller as well. Usually, they’re a little bit bigger often than farms that are selling directly to consumer because restaurants often are buying in higher quantities but not necessarily. But you still are looking at pretty small farms that have a network of buyers and so they’re usually pretty vulnerable in dealing with a small margin.
Joanna: Okay. I mean, that’s to be expected. The smallest groups are the ones that are the most vulnerable to impact on this scale I suppose. My other question and I don’t even know if you’ll be able to answer this of one of my many other questions is how long does it take? Can they just go into grocery stores? Like a farmer who was going to only restaurants, can they just pivot and supply to a grocery store chain now? Is that something that’s doable?
Hallie: That is usually up to the farmer and the grocery store as a relationship. My job approached HEB and Central Market which are two larger grocery stores in our region and said, “Hey, would you be willing to buy locally?” They said, “Yeah, sure. But we can’t change our onboarding process for vendors.” Their onboarding process for vendors is really set up for larger farms and they have some requirements that are really onerous for smaller farmers where they just do not have the time, they don’t have the capacity, they don’t have the funds to set up this infrastructure to address the onboarding requirements for these larger grocery stores. I’m not trying to get on here and call out HEB and Central Market. There are really good reasons why grocery stores have to have certain requirements and we’re in a really weird time generally speaking. I’m not trying to get on here and blast them. They do amazing things for the local food scene here in Austin specifically. Again, I can’t talk more broadly, nationally because that’s not my expertise, but there are some smaller grocery stores in Austin that don’t have to stick with those really intense onboarding processes and so they are able to bring on more local producers. But it’s just about relationships and it’s just about does this company trust this other person to bring in quality product on time reliably? Because when you get down to it, the food system is just run by a lot of people. Sometimes that can be tricky just navigating those relationships.
Joanna: I don’t know. It’s kind of frustrating. It’s like one of those things that make so much sense when you’re in a normal functioning society where you know it’s not all going to pot like it is right now.
Joanna: But right now I’m just like everybody go buy from the people who have extra supply. Everybody will sell it to you. One of my other things are technically, restaurants are still open, right? But only for carry out or delivery. Why are they essential? Why does that count as an essential business? I understand why restaurants. I mean, why grocery stores count as an essential business because they’re a direct access to food. But why can’t people just cook at home all the time?
Chris: I have a guess.
Joanna: Why won’t you guess?
Chris: My guess is they’re not. We’re just trying to on a wing and a prayer. I hope they don’t all go out of business.
Hallie: Interesting. Yeah, restaurant dining rooms did close in a lot of cities including here in Austin. All bars closed here in Austin as well. I think that that’s also pretty common across the US but I haven’t been keeping super up to date. However, yes, people can cook at home, but if you are a student or if you’re someone who’s disabled or otherwise have problems accessing the kitchen or cooking implements, it can be really hard for a lot of folks to cook their own meals. If you’re a doctor who works 19 hours a day, you might not have time and so you need to purchase prepared foods that are just ready to eat. So having delivery and takeout in addition to helping economically support these small businesses through a hard time can also improve food access and improve all these other things within the economy.
Chris: That does shed a new light on it for me. Thank you.
Hallie: Yeah, for sure.
Joanna: You were talking about the CSA. No, I can’t even remember. Is that the correct acronym, CSA?
Hallie: Yeah, Community supported agriculture.
Joanna: Okay. You were talking about the CSAs. What are good resources for people to be able to access them? Is there like a website where they’re all compounded, people can find local ones? That seems to be the most sensible way for people to access direct local produce. Is that true?
Hallie: Yeah, there are a lot of different options for purchasing directly from a farmer. CSAs are usually available directly from farm, so you kind of have to know what farms are in your area. My organization is a nonprofit within the city and so we are kind of known as a food entity. We put together a food access list that includes a lot of info on CSAs. There might also be other organizations near you wherever you’re at that have to do with food access or have to do with farmers that have put together lists like that. You can also purchase. There are delivery options. I can put some links in the show notes. One of them is called Barn2Door. I think here in Austin we have one called Farmhouse Delivery and Farm To Table. There’s a whole list of other national ones and I can put some more info on that in the show notes. In terms of CSAs, it’s really specific to the farms, but there are some of these delivery organizations that are nonprofit, some of them are for profit and they operate more nationally. But usually they try and get local food to local people.
Joanna: Very cool. If either you don’t know how to access a CSA or you don’t have a direct CSA, but you do have a farmer’s market, can you still go to farmer’s markets? It’s like farmer’s markets are relatively small and if you’re trying to stay away from people, do you think that’s still a decent idea?
Chris: Stay home. Don’t go anywhere.
Hallie: I agree with dad. It is good to stay home. It’s also important to have food and purchase food.
Hallie: Here in Austin. The farmer’s markets were classified similarly to the grocery stores and I think that from my opinion that was a really wise move made by Mayor Adler. Other cities might have closed their markets, they might also be open. You have to check with your local farmers’ market entity and your local public health organizations. If you do go to the farmer’s markets from what I have seen online of other markets, I know what we’re doing in our markets. But from what I’ve seen of other farmer’s markets, there’re a lot of really good guidelines out there that farmer’s markets are following. At our markets, specifically, farmers are doing a lot of pre-packaging where they pre bag all the foods, so when you get there you can just take it and go. You don’t have to handle the produce and neither does the farmer. The farmers are wearing gloves. There’s a lot of hand sanitizer. We have kind of bouncers that are very friendly that try and help people keep a safe distance between each other. You know it is important to buy food regardless of if you’re going to buy it at the grocery store or at the farmer’s market, you’re going to have to interact with other people and so if you can do that at the farmer’s market, if you can help support farmers, that’s amazing. But yeah, it is also important to take care of your health. If there are delivery options in your area, go ahead. Look into those. Keep yourself and other people safe as much as possible.
Joanna: If you can’t do a CSA delivery system, then it wouldn’t be there.
Hallie: Yeah, there are also apps. Like here in Austin we have an app called Vinder, V-I-N-D-E-R. There are other apps in other towns that basically it’s kind like DoorDash but for farmers like farm fresh food.
Joanna: What? That’s so cool.
Hallie: 2020 is a great year to be alive. There’re a lot of options for getting farm fresh food to you delivered. Yeah, you might have to do some digging for your area but there are options.
Chris: I bet you’re not going to hear a lot of people say 2020 is a great year to be alive. But to be fair, if we were alive at another time during a pandemic like this, we’d probably not be doing as well as we are.
Hallie: There’re a lot of resources out there, tools and a lot of people doing good work which is really cool. I will keep saying this. It keeps blowing my mind every day I show up to work. I mean, I’m working from home, but I show up on my work computer and it just blows my mind how many people are doing like really, really, really cool work that is helping support their community.
Joanna: If they do get a CSA or they go to the grocery store. Well, obviously they’re going to do something to acquire food. When they acquire that food, are there like best practices for washing produce?
Hallie: From what I know and this is not my area of expertise, I think that the CDC guidelines say that the virus cannot live on inanimate objects for more than three to four hours. Feel free to fact check me and add me on Twitter and say that I got that wrong. If I did, I might have.
Chris: Definitely your dad will check it.
Hallie: That’s not my area of expertise. Yeah, but I think to my knowledge those are the guidelines. Three to four hours the virus can’t live on inanimate objects. You should always be washing your produce. Please wash your produce. You guys wash your produce. It’s good to wash produce regardless of if we’re in a pandemic or not. It’s always good to wash your produce.
Joanna: How though? Do I just like take a scrubby brush to it? I dunk it in some bleach. What’s the system, Hallie?
Hallie: Just in some warm water.
Chris: Do not bleach your food.
Hallie: I was joking. Just some water is that good.
Hallie: Yeah, generally warm water is good. If it’s something that has more dirt on it, you can get some soap involved. I’ve had to do that with potatoes before that are a little bit crusty so I get some soap involved, but warm water will usually do the trick. Dad, did you tell me about this video of like a doctor that like had…
Chris: Yeah, it’s one of the highest viewed videos on YouTube right now. There’s this doctor that demonstrates bringing in his grocery bag and he divides up his kitchen table into two halves, the clean side and the unclean side. He puts his groceries down on the unclean side and then he’ll pick them out one by one and disinfect each piece and then put that down on the clean side. If it’s a piece of produce, then he’ll take it out and put it in the sink to wash.
Hallie: Yeah, you do small practices like that thinking about where things could have been contaminated. It’s great practice generally speaking and especially when we’re in a pandemic.
Joanna: Nice. Since we’re trying as hard as we can to not go outside and minimize our time at grocery stores or farmer’s markets or what have you, is now like the prime time to start your home garden?
Hallie: Everyone is gardening right now.
Chris: I thought everyone was making sourdough bread and watching Tiger King.
Hallie: Everyone is also making sourdough bread. My friend Emily tweeted about how to make bread. She has this amazing Twitter thread about how to make bread at the end of the world and it got picked up by like every single news outlet. It’s wild.
Joanna: That’s amazing.
Hallie: Yes, everyone’s making bread and also everyone’s gardening.
Chris: And watching Tiger King.
Hallie: Yes, apparently. I just found out about this show. I’m so behind. I just guessed it on a podcast called The Horticulturati and it’s hosted by two landscape designers and landscape architects.
Joanna: It’s called the what?
Hallie: Horticulturati. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
Joanna: Okay. That’s nice.
Hallie: Yeah, but they mentioned it they as landscapers have had a hard time getting potting soil because everyone is gardening right now.
Joanna: That brings me to another question that somebody had. Is there something I can do like as a non-agricultural thing to help support or as a non-agriculture person to help support the agriculture industry. There was what’s it called? Victory Gardens in World War II. Is that something that you foresee or you think would be useful?
Hallie: Generally, I think gardening is a very radical act and we can do a whole podcast episode about that. Gardening is awesome.
Joanna: Wait, what do you mean by radical act? I feel like you just dig a hole and put stuff in it, right?
Hallie: No, it’s very radical to grow your own food. It’s amazing. You don’t have to be gardening though. That doesn’t have to be the thing you do. If you want to support the agricultural industry, I can put links in the show notes to some funds that are relief funds for farm workers and for hospitality workers. I would try and buy from local farmers, try and plug into what’s happening in your own city locally and just try to support your community and give back where you can. Here in Austin there are some two organizations that have started giving grants out to farmers in need after the virus and I think that that’s happening in other cities too, but you’re going to have to go and find that yourself. But yeah, I would try and support in whatever way you can, your local food system and your local food community.
Joanna: Doubling back to supporting your local community as well as gardening. If you are gardening, can we still go to nurseries? Is that cool? If so, should I go to home depot or should I go to a local smaller nursery? Are they going to be open? Like what?
Chris: Don’t go anywhere. Stay home.
Hallie: Pretty much. Most nurseries have closed for the time being at least. If your local nursery might not, I would still recommend staying home. There are a lot of delivery options. Some local nurseries have also switched to doing a drive through option where you can order online or you can order over the phone and you can just go drive through in the car.
Hallie: Yeah, I would try and find an option. If you want to garden, try and support local businesses. Try and also minimize your contact with other people. If that is you driving through a nursery, maybe that’s it. If they haven’t switched to something like that, I would maybe still order online even if you’re not supporting a local business. There are small businesses that are still selling starter plants online so you can still be supporting a small business. Yeah, that’s what I would do.
Joanna: Okay, cool. Find a way to support a small business. They are the most likely to be hurting first, right?
Hallie: Yeah, to be clear, everyone will be hurting. I don’t want to minimize the plight of large companies but also well.
Chris: Everyone will be hurting. I want to double back to something as well because you said to your knowledge that the virus remained viable on inanimate objects for a few hours and I could have sworn there were a couple places where I had heard days and I think these are one of those things where I’ll definitely do some research for yourself and make sure because I bet we’re at the point where the dust hasn’t settled enough to have good information.
Hallie: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true. When you’re buying your food regardless, you should be practicing good food safety practices bagging your food. I usually use reusable bags. I’m using more of those like tiny little thin plastic bags for my produce now just because it’s more of a barrier than the reusable bags that I’ve been using which have holes in them. If you’re purchasing from a farmer or at a farmers’ market or something like that, trying to pick up stuff that’s already been pre-packaged. All of that stuff can really help. The nice thing about going to farmers’ markets is you can talk to the farmer and be like, “Hey, when you package this, what kind of food safety protocol did you have in place? Were you wearing gloves? Were you wearing a mask? Were you sanitizing? What does that look like?” You can really know more about where your food is coming from.
Chris: I never would have thought to ask someone that.
Joanna: Yeah, just talk to them from standing six feet away.
Hallie: Totally. Talk standing six feet away. You can get a ton of information about how your food was grown and handled by talking to the farmer.
Joanna: That’s very smart. Okay. Onto the chilly questions.
Joanna: Oh, sarcasm. Okay. How do you see this playing out in the long run for farmers and the agricultural supply chain? Not necessarily like we know that you don’t have the full data at your fingertips, but your gut reaction as somebody who’s worked in this industry and seeing how it works, how do you feel like it is going to go?
Chris: Come on Hallie, look into that crystal ball and tell the future.
Hallie: Oof. Okay. Unfortunately, I think that this is going to put a lot of small farmers out of business. It’s going to put all kinds of small businesses out of business and that includes farmers I think. There are a lot of tools that are being put together and resources that are being put together at the federal level to try and support farmers to minimize that loss as much as possible, but I still think that it will happen. The thing that I’m really hoping will happen and that personally in my work day to day, I’m hoping to be able to use this as a moment to grow from is I think that this pandemic is really underscoring what it means to have a robust and resilient and decentralized food system in a way that was really hard to explain to policy makers and to members of the public and to anyone who was intimately involved with the idea of local food and what that really means. For the grocery stores that I’m working with, their suppliers are like maybe two to three companies for produce and so if one person at that packaging plant gets sick then everyone else at the packaging plant gets sick.
Joanna: Oh my gosh.
Hallie: That labor is shut down and there’s no produce, right?
Joanna: For the grocery store is that you work with?
Hallie: Yeah, for the grocery stores I’m talking to.
Joanna: Can you find one to two places?
Joanna: That is insane.
Hallie: In terms of aggregators and distributors, it’s usually like one to two companies. I think I said two to three. I think two to three is probably pretty accurate. That’s extremely fragile.
Joanna: That’s really stressing me out.
Hallie: I think seeing what it looks like to live in a world with this amount of pressure being put on it it’s becoming a lot clearer what of value it is to have local food and to have local food producers and to have like a decentralized food supply system. We don’t really know what the different points of contamination could be if you’re having food that’s handled by six different companies, but if you’re going to the farmer’s market and you’re talking to your farmer and you’re picking food up from your farmer that your farmer picked or your farmer’s farm worker picked having an option for decentralized local food supply, I think is making a much clearer why it’s important to be supporting agriculture in all of the different ways and all of the different shapes they can take. Because I also wouldn’t advocate for a 100% local food system because if we had a tornado in Austin and all of our food was local, then we would be S-O-L, but having a food system that is resilient and robust and decentralized in a way where it can be flexible and it can still support people even in a time of crisis, I think is a really important conversation to have during and after this crisis.
Chris: Hey, Jo. Is that all of the questions?
Hallie: Yeah, you’ve got more questions?
Joanna: I genuinely don’t know if you’ll be able to answer this last one, so I was not sure if I was going to ask it.
Chris: Bring it.
Joanna: It was how are farmers and farm workers staying safe or going to stay safe during and after this pandemic?
Hallie: What a great question!
Chris: You know given how our episode on farm worker’s rights went, I don’t know that much has changed for farm workers quite frankly. Maybe some of them, I don’t know.
Hallie: Yeah, farm workers particularly in larger agricultural systems usually live extremely remotely and they have little access to healthcare, so that is extremely dangerous especially during this time of crisis. A lot of farmers are older as well. The average age of the American farmer right now I think is 58 and that’s an average, so a lot of them are much older than that. They’re definitely an at risk population. Farmers also tend to have more respiratory issues than the average American, so they are also at risk in that way. This is definitely something that’s going to be impacting the individual people that grow your food and that move your food and get it to you to your market. Support where you can. I’m going to be posting resources in the show notes and also think about how your choices in buying are impacting how your local food system can function and not just in the time of crisis, in all times because it’s helpful for once we get to that time of crisis to have a really robust food system. It is going to be a really dangerous time for a lot of farmers and for a lot of farm workers and for a lot of just consumers, people who are eating. We’re all being impacted by this and hopefully we can all be kind and support each other and do our best to get through this together.
Chris: Dang indeed. Well, thank you everyone for your questions. Thank you listener for listening. Thank you for Joanna for proxying and for joining us for a great conversation.
Hallie: Yeah, thanks dad and Jo and I really quickly want to thank Maggie and Steven and Amy and Edo and Kathleen for all of your questions that made this possible.
Joanna: I did want to circle back to one thing. You were talking about how an upside of going to a farmer’s market is that you can directly talk to your supplier and ask how your food is being handled, but would that not be the same case if you had some CSA type of direct delivery system?
Hallie: Yeah, if you’re doing CSA you could email them.
Joanna: I could email them or call them or whatever.
Hallie: Delivery totally. Yeah, you can follow your farmers on Instagram. They have great Instagram usually. They’re a lot of ways to connect with your local food system and your local farmers and usually there’s a lot of good chicken pictures on there. Some lovely sunset pictures. That’s like a good staple of the farmer Instagram. Hit him up, give him some likes.
Joanna: Awesome. All right. Thank you so much Hallie for answering all of our questions and thank you to you all. I’m so excited I’m finally on this episode.
Hallie: Yeah, you’ve been on the Patreon content, but not an actual episode.
Joanna: Here I am.
Chris: Glad you’re here.
Joanna: Long time listener. First time participant. Hello.
Hallie: Thanks for listening to this mini episode of Ask One to Grow On. If you have your own questions that you’d like answered, they can be about COVID-19 or they can be more generally about agriculture, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or post with the hashtag AskOnetoGrowOn.