Photo Essay: Family farm response to COVID-19
There’s an ambient humming noise inside the barn, an industrial sized fan circulating the sweltering heat and establishing a light breeze that moved through the straw covering the ground. Lindsay Champion enters the barn, breaking up the group of Jersey Cows gathered in front of the breeze. She leads the girls one by one to the opposite end of the room, tying them to the wall and spraying their legs with fly spray. Lindsay wheels in the milking equipment and sets up next to the first cow, who waits patiently throughout the process. Beginning with an iodine disinfectant solution and initial milking by hand, Lindsay connects the milking device once any bacteria has been cleared. The closed system makes the milk cleaner and safer for distribution to members of the herdshare who receive milk from the Champion Family Farm.
When the milking process is complete, Lindsay leads the cows out to pasture. The girls and the two calves follow her in a single-file line to their designated area. The grass is tall in comparison to the plot next to it that was cut down by yesterday’s grazing. The silent solitude of the open field is disrupted by huffing, snorting, and tearing noises of grass being ripped from the ground as the cows spread out, chomping across the plot. They’ll stay here for the majority of the day, returning to the barn for the night when it is time for their second milking of the day at 11 p.m.
With the cows and milking taken care of, everyone’s attention is turned to preparing for the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) member pick-up happening in just a few hours. The Champion Family Farm’s CSA program allows community members to make an upfront investment in the farm in exchange for a bi-weekly share of the vegetables produced at the farm. Each member receives a crop box filled with in season, freshly harvested produce that varies with each pick-up. Today’s box includes a fragrant assortment of garlic scapes, green onions, shallots, kale, chard, strawberries, and lettuce mix.
CSA share days are busy, as harvesting, dividing and distributing the produce are all tasks that must be completed in addition to the other daily chores. Kevin and Lindsay Champion have been working since dawn, but time is still of the essence. Empty crop-boxes are lined up in the pole barn while Lindsay, with the help of employee Mark Abrams, work quickly to divide and prepare the vegetables for the crop boxes.
There are more CSA members at the farm this year, an increase that the Champion family attributes to changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. After seeing empty shelves in grocery stores amid panicked food shopping, many community members turned to local CSA programs as an alternative to big-box stores and unreliable commercial supply chains. The temporary closure of farmers markets and restaurants resulted in many small farms, including the Champion Family Farm, being forced to find alternative ways to distribute their produce. For many, this meant increasing the number of CSA memberships to make-up for what would normally be distributed at markets and restaurants. This pivot was successful for the Champion family, but according to Jae Gerhart, an MSU Food Systems Coordinator for Washtenaw County, was a struggle for others. “A lot of farms have sold too many shares and are struggling to supply all the members,” Gerhart said. “They just got excited by all the increased demand.”
Meanwhile, large scale farms have had their own struggles in relation to the pandemic, their size preventing them from adapting quickly to changes in supply chains. “They couldn’t shift as fast,” Gerhart said. “The system righted itself within two weeks, which is pretty fast, but it took all hands on deck.” Gerhart mentioned that some farms were forced to dump milk and overturn crops like onions and potatoes. Lindsay interjected in shock, “Oh, no! Storage crops!” The idea of turning over a storage crop like onions, that can cure in the field, is horrific to Lindsay, but the chaos that took place at industrial farms differed from the struggles of smaller, organic farms like hers. With her infant son strapped to her chest and her toddler kicking up dust in the driveway, Lindsay described some of the trouble they’ve had with pests and weather at the farm. The unpredictable challenges bring a certain level of risk for share members, as some pick-ups can be lighter than others as a result. Lindsay worries about ensuring produce distribution, but it is a risk that members are willing to take in exchange for fresh, in season vegetables.
As 3 p.m. approaches, Kevin joins Lindsay in the pole barn with their teenage son and Mark to complete the distribution process. Hands are busy cutting down the ends of the green onions and counting out sweetpeas, while the toddler, Solstice, quality checks the strawberries by sampling a berry from each box. The team finishes just in time, the crop-boxes packed and lined up neatly as cars start to pull up in front of the pole barn. The Champions take a well deserved break, sitting and greeting the members as they arrive for their share. Members make light conversation beneath their face masks, talking to Lindsay about the contents of this week’s box, recipe ideas and goings on at the farm. Some stay longer than others, chatting with each other and enjoying the views of open fields and rows of crops in the distance. Lindsay explains to one of the members that she has the choice between kale and chard, since some boxes have one or the other. The woman is happy to take either, and ends up selecting the box with chard to try something new.
The rush of the morning chores, preparation and initial pick ups slows as the day progresses. A late afternoon lull seems to have set in, but work continues despite the slower pace. Lindsay leaves the pole barn with the baby on her hip. She sits down on the edge of a crop field and starts weeding the outermost row. A member that has just arrives comes to join her, chatting and sitting down to help with the task. Kevin is busy cleaning out the pole barn to make room for the freshly baled hay to be stored. There are a few more shares waiting to be picked-up, but there’s no rush. The evening chores still loom, but no one seems to be thinking of those now as they enjoy the relief and temporary relaxation of another successfully completed share day.