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In the Face of Crisis, Farmers Find Roots in Resilience

In the Face of Crisis, Farmers Find Roots in Resilience

Regional self-reliance. Emergency preparedness and calculation of risk. Accumulation and distribution of local wealth. Adjusting to market demand. One foot in the present, the other in the future.

A mere two weeks ago, 16 food and farming professionals gathered at Glynwood to discuss these concepts in relation to farm resiliency and marketing. At the time, many of the topics felt relevant, but still abstract. Today, though, people across the Hudson Valley, country and globe are being forced to think on their feet in the wake of a global pandemic. 

To farmers and food purveyors alike, it has become immediately clear that resilience, adaptation, community investment, and effective marketing are key to the viability of their businesses, as well as the health of our population. The following workshop summary and reflection details what resiliency means, and how it relates to our present moment. 

The Resiliency and Marketing convening began with a conversation with Laura Lengnick, soil scientist and founder of Cultivating Resilience LLC. Outlining the fundamental pillars of resilience--including awareness of high uncertainty, soil health, and diversity of mutually beneficial relationships--Laura emphasized that farmers are not just cultivators of food. They are also ambassadors of biodiversity, plant and human health, and regional economies. Farmers must therefore weave their farm into the fabric of their communities to ensure ecological protection and local abundance. 

Columbia professor Jeff Potent reminded us that showing a profit should mean “touching something and leaving it better than when you found it.” With decades of farming experience under her belt, Glynwood’s Senior Farm Director Lynda Prim emphasized that farm managers’ decision-making should be a constant cycle rooted in record-keeping and risk assessment.  Finally, Lauren Melodia of the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE) examined new approaches to marketing and distribution, encouraging producers to evaluate the opportunities, resource commitments, limitations and risks associated with institutional sales to retailers, wholesalers, and restaurants, and building relationships for distribution such as aggregators and regional distributors.

In their discussion of regional sourcing, Chris Henwood of fast-casual chain DIG and Jonathan Hittinger of catering company The Pixie and the Scout shared the importance of flexibility and adaptability in their role as food purveyors. Respecting crop seasonality means that some items can only be featured on the menu for one or two weeks. Crop failure at one farm may mean purchasing a different crop to continue supporting that business economically, and sourcing a replacement for the failed crop from another farm. And most importantly, in order to justify the higher prices of their food, regionally sourcing caterers and restaurants must effectively communicate the premium quality, flavor, and sustainability of the ingredients they are serving. Only then will they have the consumer buy-in to guarantee economic profitability. 

Finally, Chris Wayne, director of GrowNYC’s FARMroots program, and retired farmer Sandy Gordon celebrated innovation and farmer collaboration. Chris presented research conducted at New York City’s Greenmarkets, demonstrating how smart signage, appealing messaging, beautiful produce displays and pre-order market apps can help hundreds of New York farmers market vendors improve their sales. Sandy celebrated the successful transition of his farmland to a young farming family, emphasizing that networks of land stewards, land trusts, and regional navigators are essential for securing farmland for future generations. Innovation and collaboration were also reflected in the interactions between workshop attendees. Throughout every break and meal, farmers, food professionals and technical assistance providers shared ideas, experiences, and advice with one another, demonstrating a mutual respect and generosity uniquely strong in our industry. 

It is reassuring that our regional farmers have been thinking about resilience and the importance of being nimble in response to market demand, be it new market opportunities or how to serve customers in the event of market disruption. Farmers pivot every day. They are well suited to adjust in times of crisis. 

Jeff Potent notes that the COVID-19 pandemic certainly creates challenges, risks and uncertainties for Hudson Valley farmers and others working to build a vibrant and resilient local food system.  However, it also creates opportunities for ground-up workarounds that will allow us to serve our communities in these troubled times and strengthen relationships that could last a lifetime.

Our Hudson Valley farmers care deeply about their local communities and are actively communicating with one another to ensure continued distribution of healthy, nutritious food, safely produced following CDC guidelines and with a very limited chain-of-custody. Please support your local farmers, and spread the word that helping them helps the continued support and food security for our communities.