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Farming Amidst a Health Crisis

Photo courtesy of Amanda Hand, MKONO Farm.

Reimagined Farmers Markets Offer Fresh, Local Foods 

“That first weekend after schools were closed because of the pandemic, at that Sunday farmers market, you could see the panic in customers’ eyes,” says Dr. Stacy Eckels. “They didn’t know where or if they were going to find their groceries.”   

Eckels, who runs Windermere Farms in West River with her husband Andy, is also an agricultural sciences teacher at Southern High School, the school’s Future Farmers of America sponsor, and sits on the board of Anne Arundel County Farm Bureau.   

She has witnessed firsthand the struggles some are having with trying to procure food safely during the coronavirus outbreak. Luckily, like many farmers, Eckels did not panic. She knew the farming community would help. They just needed to try something new.   

Andy Eckels of Windermere Farms preps a mushroom log.

That approach is paying off for small growers and producers around the Chesapeake Bay. In Calvert County, the farmers market association just held its first virtual market with results far surpassing all expectations.   

“My farm sales skyrocketed as soon as I started offering delivery, serendipitously right before the pandemic craziness,” says Amanda Hand of MKONO Farm in Huntingtown, who raises heritage pigs with her husband Jason. “I follow a lot of farmers and see what they are doing. Some friends of mine in New York live close to a meat locker; during the pandemic, this locker started offering free aggregating of local meat and produce for farmers that wanted to offer a pickup service.”   

Hand took this idea and created an online market with Amanda Bowen of Prosperity Acres in Sunderland, president of the Calvert County Farmers Market.   

“My first thought when I saw what was happening at grocery stores, just this buy, buy, buy—until there was nothing, bothered me. What happens to people like me who can’t afford to buy groceries for three weeks at a time or can’t get to the store?” says Bowen. “So, we considered things like pop-up markets before the stay-at-home order took effect.”   

Amanda Bowen prepares orders for pick-up during the first Calvert County Virtual Farmers Market.

Hand and Bowen contacted vendors to see what they could sell immediately, put together a list, using a Google document, posted it on Facebook, “And our sales went through the roof,” says Bowen.   

“We kind of just slapped the first one together,” she says. “But within 36 hours, we had 200 orders. 80 percent of that was for home delivery and the other 20 was for time-specific pickup at Cardinal Creek Plant Farm.”   

The Calvert farmers delivered over 100 orders to residents as far away as St. Mary’s and Hughesville.   

In Anne Arundel County, the in-person Riva market is still going strong on Saturdays and Sundays—but with some changes.  

Adam Cottrell, a market board member, runs Floating Lotus Farmstead with his wife Jocelyne. He says the pandemic is keeping him flexible and farsighted. “To open up space at the market for our essential vendors, we had to keep our other vendors out of the market. We have to mitigate our long lines, so we’ve marked spots on the pavement to encourage social distancing. Vendors are also prepackaging their foods – something we used to discourage. But that’s part of the reality now.”  

Adam Cottrell with Floating Lotus Farmstead is helping the Anne Arundel Farmers Market meet demand while also keeping customers and vendors safe.

Cottrell says farmers are more important than ever now. “People come to organic farms or sustainably operated farms with that notion that food is medicine. In some cases, high-risk people are looking to us specifically to make them feel healthy. It’s my duty to stay safe and we now have an extra responsibility to be physically safe.”  

None of the farmers Bay Weekly spoke to believe the demand for their harvest is going to decline. They each encouraged residents to reach out to farms, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and buy your food from a market.   

“As a farmer, seeing the community response to the crisis, I can see that there is a huge surge in the appreciation of the local farm, the farmer, and his/her products,” says Hand. “It has been a long time since America has had to really think about the importance of being able to self-sustain food production for the population. The local farmer is the closest, quickest and most reliable source (during) a state of emergency.”  

You can find all of the mentioned farms online, and Calvert Co. Virtual Farmers Market on Facebook. Maryland’s Best has also released an interactive map feature based on information gathered directly from local agricultural and seafood producers. Each business has included information on product availability, how to order, and options for pick-up and/or delivery. The map also includes farmers markets across the state: bit.ly/2xVHRxS