May 31, 2020
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Maine ag operations see unprecedented demand amid coronavirus concerns

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Christa Bahner prepares onions for sale on a worktable at Bahner Farm in this 2018 file photo.

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BELFAST, Maine — Most years, mid-March is a slow time for the Winter Buying Club at Bahner Farm in Belmont, as the season winds down and the amount of produce available dwindles.

Not this year.

Christa Bahner noticed that orders for items such as fresh spinach, carrots, salad mix and bread began taking off on the weekend of March 14, and only stopped when the farm cut off early orders. When the farmers were able to catch their breath, they realized gross sales for the week were more than double their Thanksgiving sales week — and a more than tenfold increase from their typical March business.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“Boy, is there demand for local food,” she said. “It was totally unexpected.”

But in a world reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, the unexpected is quickly becoming the norm. Along with farms such as the Bahner Farm, local businesses Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow and Fedco Seeds in Clinton have been overwhelmed by sudden demand. Customers around Maine and the nation — stuck inside and uncertain of the future — have turned some attention toward seed catalogs.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Fedco Seeds Branch Coordinator Roberta Bailey stands in the company's climate controlled seed storage facility in Clinton in this 2017 file photo.

“That’s definitely what’s happening,” Roberta Bailey of Fedco Seeds said. “Their own food insecurity, and the insecurity of the food system, are knocking people upside the head right now.”

At Fedco, the spike in sales started on the same weekend in mid-March. Orders were tripling by the day, Bailey said, and the company had a hard time keeping up with the surge in business.

[Read our full coronavirus coverage here]

“We would love to bring in more people, but nobody at work feels comfortable about bringing in new staff,” she said. “We’re just taking our time and dealing with orders as they come. We’re trying to simplify quite a bit.”

At Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Dave Mehlhorn, the co-CEO, said he believes that the uncertainty with the food supply is making people who once grew something in their backyard want to do that again.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the home garden business,” he said.

Johnny’s was seeking to hire a few more employees, mostly in the warehouse, to pack and ship orders. Because the company is trying to follow all the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about social distancing, officials created a second shift in order to reduce employee density. But when the workers are in the warehouse, they are busy right now, he said, packing seed orders that have come in from all over the place. And shoppers are not seeking unusual varieties of produce right now.

[How to grocery shop during the coronavirus outbreak]

“It is the traditional crops that a home gardener is comfortable with, like tomatoes and peppers and lettuces and fruiting crops,” Mehlhorn said, adding that the demand hit the seed company quickly. “It came on kind of in the same way that the rush on grocery stores came on.”

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Packets of seeds on a table at Fedco's warehouse in Clinton in 2017.

It’s not hard to understand, he said. Growing more food at home is a boon for people who may be feeling worried about leaving the safety of their houses in a time of crisis. As well, it eases the minds of folks who may have seen some shelves emptied at their local grocery store.

“Our little mission is to help friends, families and communities feed one another,” Mehlhorn said. “It seems like people are really happy we’re here serving that mission right now.”

That’s a mission shared by many farmers and producers around the state. Bahner said that although her farm usually stops doing its buying club in the first week of April, it will be extended this year into May, when the farm stand opens.

“It was reassuring that people were looking for local food security, which is a pretty healthy response,” she said. “It’s going to help build more local food security in years to come.”

[What Maine’s farmers markets are doing to keep shoppers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic]

At Fedco, Bailey said she and her busy colleagues are glad they can help a stressed out populace plant a garden or window-box this spring.

“We’re sending these boxes of hope and aspiration out into the world,” she said. “It is good work. And we’re committed to getting the seed out there until we can’t. Until it’s not safe for our workers, or until we’re physically mandated to shut down.”

She hopes that when the pandemic eases, there will be more interest in growing community gardens, root cellars and canning facilities.

“Maybe there will be a little reset button happening,” she said, adding that working in her own high tunnel is helping her get through the crisis. “I’m so needing to smell that earth and have that calm, meditative time.”

Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus

 


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