A mountainous pile of discarded potatoes near Picabo went viral on Twitter last week, highlighting the struggles of some large farms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But not all local farms have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus. For some smaller farms that sell their products directly to customers through farmers markets, CSA programs or online shops, the pandemic has meant a steady, and in some cases even increasing, demand for fresh food and produce. For others, the economic impact remains to be seen as summer approaches.
Kraay’s Market and Garden, which offers home delivery to customers in the Wood River Valley, has seen orders skyrocket since the virus hit Idaho, owner Sherry Kraay said. The Kraays’ market serves as a sort of hub for about 60 small farms, ranches and bakeries in Idaho; customers can pick and choose from an assortment of products online.
“Who we deal with are smaller mom-and-pop family-owned farms that do not depend on [contracts with large companies] for their livelihood,” Kraay said. “They’re probably losing a bit of money not selling to local restaurants and whatnot, but it’s not like they have thousands of dollars’ worth of contracts with big corporations.”
Since mid-March, when the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Blaine County, the Kraays’ customer base has tripled and the number of products they distribute has quadrupled, Sherry Kraay said. Before the virus, the market’s largest individual order amounted to about $600 worth of products. As customers shelter in their homes, with many replacing trips to the grocery store with delivery services, the Kraays have seen orders as high as $1,900.
“I think our farmers are doing good and they’re geared up,” Kraay said. “I know some who have decided to plant more than they would have had this not happened.”
For Mark and Jill Johnson of Bellevue, the owners of Silver Creek Seed, the pandemic has had the opposite effect on business. The Johnsons, who donated the 75,000 tons of potatoes photographed near Picabo, primarily sell their seed potatoes to commercial farms in Idaho, who in turn sell their product to processing plants. With restaurants closed and the demand for french fries down, the Johnsons have lost an estimated 10 to 15 percent of their business in the pandemic, Mark Johnson said.
“We got left holding the bag,” he said.
The Johnsons haven’t cut down on the amount of seed potatoes they’re growing, but they are expecting to have a significant amount of extra, unsellable product this year—some of which they’ve been handing out to the public for free.
“It’s not that it’s going to put us out of business or anything,” Johnson said. “It’s just that we had a market here [this year] that we thought was going to be one of the best ever. Then it turned into an unfortunate incident. But that’s just the way farming goes. You get used to those things.”
As warmer weather approa-ches, some smaller local farms may also start to feel the economic impact of the pandemic.
“I know it’s going to be different,” said Carol Rast of Prairie Sun Farm, a 1.5-acre farm near Fairfield. “But I don’t know how bad it’s going to be yet.”
Rast is one of a number of local farmers who sell produce to restaurants in the Wood River Valley during the summer. While restaurant dining rooms may be allowed to reopen as soon as May 16, it’s unknown what business will look like.
“I’m not sure how many tourists are going to be in Blaine County this summer to support [those restaurants],” Rast said. “So the demand for our products is a question mark right now.”
Another question mark: how farmers markets in the Wood River Valley will operate this summer. Some markets in other parts of the state have decided to host their markets online this year, Rast said, but no decisions have been made locally.
For her part, Rast said, she’s “just planting like a crazy woman this year”—carrying on as if conditions were normal.
“Most of the farmers have gone ahead and planted like usual,” she said. “We’re just going for it. So I don’t think there’s going to be a shortage of food—not if we can help it.”