As empty restaurant tables continue to collect dust in New York City, 60 miles east in Brookhaven, Long Island, Early Girl Farm is bursting with life. Tomato, eggplant and pepper seedlings are beginning to extend their leafy limbs out into the world as employees carefully prepare the soil, adjusting its mineral levels and incorporating nutrient-rich compost to create optimal growing conditions for this summer’s crops.
Patty Gentry, a former restaurant owner and chef turned professional farmer, owns and operates the small but mighty farm, which provides seasonal, organic produce to restaurants in the New York City Metro Area.
2020 marks Patty’s tenth year as a professional farmer. She is an expert in her field, who understands the science of organic farming down to the microscopic levels of soil composition. But, in this strange moment in history, the Coronavirus Era, local farmers in New York State are attempting to navigate completely uncharted territory. New York City, one of the world’s largest gastronomical hubs, has essentially shut down.
Many restaurants have switched to take out and delivery, but many have decided to completely close their doors until the end of the pandemic, which at this time is still unforeseeable.
For farmers outside the city, like Patty, these decisions raise questions about what’s in store for the coming spring and summer seasons, as well the potential long-term effects of this pandemic on local agriculture. 60 percent of Patty’s income has traditionally come from supplying wholesale produce to restaurants. The remainder comes from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, who pay a fee early in the season in exchange for a weekly selection of fresh produce throughout the spring and summer. Early Girl Farm has more than doubled its number of CSA members for the season, but even this is not quite enough to match the revenue gained from restaurant sales.
Day-to-day operations on the farm have also changed dramatically in light of new COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Everything from planting to harvesting is done by hand at Early Girl. Traditionally, employees will share jobs, working together to seed beds, talking while they plant and occasionally snacking together on fresh vegetables. Now with new social distancing requirements, employees must be extremely careful not to share tools or work gloves and do more work in isolation.
“One of us is planting beets in one field, another is planting lettuce in a different field, another is working in the greenhouse. And, just to be safe, at lunch we all take breaks in separate areas,” Patty explains. Socializing is an important element of small scale farming, especially in a tight-knit community with just a handful of employees. “Those aspects are what make farming so lovely.” It’s hard to have to sacrifice that.
But, despite the uncertainties and challenges brought about by this crisis, Patty and her employees are exploring innovative ways to make sure Early Girl continues thriving. With less time and resources being dedicated to serving restaurants, Patty is considering using her decades of experience in the kitchen to create nutritious and delicious prepared food options, bringing vegetables directly from her farm straight to people’s home dining room tables.
Rather than worrying about how these coming weeks or months will unfurl, Patty is focused on maintaining a sense of normalcy and working to help members of her community weather these difficult times. She accepts the possibility that this season may not be her most profitable, but she plans to grow the same volume of food that she always has. “We’re just planting as if things are normal,” she explains, “there is always going to be a need for food.” Whether it’s small restaurants attempting to get back on their feet after this large financial hit or local soup kitchens, people need food, and Patty wants to be able to provide it. Even if that means selling produce to restaurant owners for lower prices, increasing the volume of food for her CSA members or donating excess to people in her local community, Patty will make sure that the food finds a home.
This pandemic has caused cataclysmic changes to countless aspects of our day-to-day lives and has exposed the shortcomings and complexities of behind the scenes systems that many of us take for granted, including the food supply chain. In the early weeks of the crisis, we saw consistent food shortages in major supermarkets due to compounding factors, including increased panic buying and supply chain failures.
Many food and grocery items arrive in the hands of the consumer after an extremely long journey, beginning at a farm or processing plant and moving through factories, shipping centers, warehouses, freight planes and delivery trucks until finally being shelved by retail workers. Now more than ever, there are a thousand opportunities for some element of this process to go awry, whether it’s due to national border closings, factories suspending production, delivery complications — the list goes on and on.
When the food production process is localized, some of these potential complications are alleviated and there is an increased level of dependability in moments of crisis. In Patty’s experience, the level of trust CSA members have in their local farmers to consistently deliver quality produce in times of need is absent in large scale, high volume supermarkets. “Because people know me, they trust me,” she explains, “I’ve been driving to drop off early spring crops to people’s homes these past few weeks, and there’s a sense of intimacy we share. I’m not just some person halfway across the country growing their food, I’m right down the street.” This consistent, personal communication from the farmer enables consumers to know what’s currently available, what items can be expected in the coming weeks and the precautions being taken to ensure food is safe and healthy.
It’s in times of crisis that we come to understand the critical role that local businesses, particularly local farms, have in sustaining our communities at multiple scales, from New York City to Patty’s own small town. Individuals like Patty and her employees at Early Girl Farm are proving that there are infinite opportunities to innovate, adapt and even flourish in the darkest and most uncertain of times.
Rae Specht is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]