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Many Dover-Foxcroft area farmers agree that one way to alleviate the threat to the food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic is to remove some of the links.
“I think this is a big eye-opener and something our business has been really trying to get people to be aware of — that the food supply chain needs to be shorter,” said Wendy Russell, co-owner of Widdershins LLC in Dover-Foxcroft. “People need to be relying more on their local farmers, especially for instances like this when there is insecurity in the chain.
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“Most food that people eat comes from at least 1,500 miles away from where they live, and that’s pretty scary when you think of not being able to transport it for whatever reason.”
Concerns about the food supply chain have been heightened in recent weeks by the closing of several major food-processing plants across the nation due to employees testing positive for coronavirus.
That led to the president of one of the nation’s largest food processors, Tyson Foods Inc., to acknowledge in a full-page ad that ran in several large newspapers last weekend that “the food supply chain is breaking.”
“This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable,” John Tyson said. “As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.”
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday there were eight cases of coronavirus detected at the Tyson plant in Portland — the first instance of an outbreak at a Maine food processing facility. CDC Director Nirav Shah said none who tested positive are at work, and there are discussions about universal testing for plant employees.
Russell and Dan Kaplan, owner of Heartstone Farm in Charleston, are convinced local farmers around the country can make up much of any gap that results in their regions, and their farms already have experienced significant increases in sales since the pandemic began its spread around the United States in mid-March.
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“Our sales have gone up many, many times in the last four weeks,” Kaplan said. “The way we look at it is we’ve added 500 new customers in the last few weeks and now our job is to show them that we have amazing products and amazing customer service so they’ll stay with us.”
The two farms have used different methods to achieve similar growth in the face of the supply chain woes.
Widdershins offers grass-fed beef, lamb, pork and goat meat and freezer packages as well as raw milk, goat cheese and yogurt from its shop at the Bear Hill Road farm.
“A big thing for us is community,” Russell said. “We don’t ship our food to Boston. We want our stuff to be here. We like to feed the local people. It’s really important that local people can have a product like this and a place to get it and be sustainable about it.”
Heartstone Farm has focused on its direct online sales of frozen beef and chicken throughout the Northeast from its distribution center at the former Countryside Meat Market in Dover-Foxcroft, which also serves as a retail outlet for local sales on Saturday mornings.
Kaplan raises grass-fed beef on his 500-acre farm and teams with Tide Mill Organic Farm of Edmunds to offer chicken.
“People got a little nervous about the supply of meat and since they had to stay at home they were now cooking at home and not going to restaurants as much,” Kaplan said. “Instead more people are buying beef and chicken from farmers they know rather than big factory farms they don’t know.
“My supply chain is me to you. There’s no other people in that supply chain and that’s a resilient supply chain, a supply chain you can rely on.”
The increased exposure to Russell’s farm also has generated some new requests perhaps related to the atmosphere surrounding the pandemic, such as customers seeking to purchase goat kids to raise themselves.
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“It’s unusual, but I think part of it is people are scared and want to have their own livestock and goats are what I call the ‘apocalypse livestock’,” she said. “They don’t require a lot of area, they don’t require a lot of hay and you can get meat and milk from them.
“I could barely give away goats in the past. This year, though, I’ve probably got every one spoken for.”
And while prices often are higher for farm-to-table purchases than they are for food bought at larger retailers, Russell said the benefits of locally grown meat far outweigh any additional cost.
“I’m always of the belief that food should not be the cheapest thing in your life,” she said. “It’s the most important thing you put in you, so why are you trying to find cheap food?”
Both central Maine farmers see potential staying power in the buying habits reflected by their newer customers.
“When you get back to basics and you’re locked down and your life’s at stake, food is one of the basics and this has changed everything in my opinion,” Kaplan said.
“I think this is a change that will survive when this is all over. People will still shop at grocery stores, but I think plenty of people have had their eyes opened that there’s an alternative.”
Watch: What’s going on at the Tyson facility in Portland