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Farmers Enter Growing Season With Uncertainty Around Flower And Produce Sales

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Elspeth Bourne-Kebbell works at Walker Farm and has been getting ready for the upcoming season.

It’s a busy time of year for Vermont’s vegetable and fruit farmers. Spring is coming, and farmers across the state will soon be turning their soil and starting another growing season. Even though the new coronavirus is raising a lot of questions about how they'll market the vegetables and flowers they grow, farmers are plowing ahead.

“We’re on track,” said Jon Cohen, who owns Deep Meadow Farm, in Windsor County. “I mean we have a seeding-planting schedule. We’re moving forward with it.”

Right now, Cohen’s greenhouses are filled with tiny vegetable seedlings. He has tomatoes, kale, chard, beets and onions, and all are being prepared to eventually go into the ground.

His greenhouse smells like summer. It’s warm and humid inside, and every tiny seedling offers the promise of abundance and better times ahead.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Jon Cohen owns Deep Meadow Farm in Windsor County. Cohen has a lot of questions about the upcoming season but is moving ahead with his planting schedule.

Cohen started a lot of these plants a few months ago, when Covid-19 was still only a potential threat to Vermonters' health and lives.

“We have all of our seeds. We have all of our materials,” he said. “And, you know, we’re farmers. We’re resilient. We often figure things out.”

Cohen’s been working hard down on the farm with his crew, even though he has a lot of questions about how this season might play out.

He’s not sure how Covid-19 might affect his CSA customers who pick-up their orders at the farm, or if his local farmers’ market will open.

"We have all of our seeds. We have all of our materials. And, you know we're farmers. We're resilient. We often figure things out." - Jon Cohen, Deep Meadow Farm

Cohen also has some big accounts around Boston that he supplies with produce. It’s uncertain whether that market will still be there come summer, or if he’ll have trouble getting produce there.

Additionally, Cohen relies on temporary workers from Jamaica to get his harvest in every year, and as COVID-19 spreads, international travel has gotten a lot more complicated.

“Our friends from Jamaica who work for us, they are critical components for ourselves," Cohen said. "For many of the farms throughout Vermont and New England, it's H2-A workers that are producing the volume that services the regional communities.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Tomato plants inside a greenhouse at Walker Farm

Abbey Willard, director of agriculture development for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said she’s been reaching out to vegetable and fruit farmers across Vermont to try to answer questions about the upcoming season. 

Willard is hopeful that temporary workers from Jamaica and Mexico will be able to get here to help with vegetables on farms like Deep Meadow, and with Vermont’s apple crop in the fall.

“The agency has been in close connection for weeks now with the Congressional delegation around the H2-A worker issue and the closure of the Jamaican and Mexican consulate,” she said.

And she’s been working on strategies to help farmers harvest and deliver produce, while maintaining social distancing.

Willard says, Vermont is about to find out just how strong its local food system really is.

“The network and the mechanism and infrastructure that we have in Vermont are being put to work and put to the test right now, after all the years of investment that we’ve made in building a vibrant local food system,” she said.

The network and the mechanism and infrastructure that we have in Vermont are being put to work and put to test right now, after all the years of investment that we've made in building a vibrant local food system." - Abbey Willard, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets

At Walker Farm in Dummerston, co-owner Jack Mannix does a lot of business in the spring selling vegetable starters and seeds.

He said the phone has been ringing off the hook with customers asking when and if the farm will open.

And Mannix is not surprised.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Jack Mannix takes care of some business inside a greenhouse at Walker Farm.

“The demand from our customers has been incredible for our garden center,” Mannix said. “Everybody is staying at home, nobody’s traveling and people in a time of anxiety turn to their gardens. We always called it cheap therapy before this, and now it’s even more important therapy, I think.”

For now, Mannix has his full crew working and his greenhouses are bursting with flowers and vegetable starters.

However, he's not sure what he’ll be able to sell, or even if he’ll be able to open his farmstand this year.

Mannix is trying to work on a pre-order, curbside pickup system to move his product, though he thinks the state might approve such a practice for vegetable sales, but not flowers.

Mannix does not think that would be a good idea.

“You’re going to have a revolution,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think the state knows how important flowers are to people in this state, to gardeners. And if we have to, we’ll have our customers...

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Trays of pansies stand ready to be sold at Walker Farm in Dummerston.

write in letters to petition the state to tell them how important those are.”

Mannix also grows organic vegetables on about 30 acres of rich Connecticut River Valley soil and said it gets busy.  Walker Farm is the sort of place where they need a sheriff out front directing traffic during the height of the summer.

The farm stand is small, and usually that’s part of the charm of shopping there — squeezing in-between overflowing bins of green beans and cucumbers and rubbing elbows with your neighbors.

Mannix knows that won’t work this summer.

But at this point he’s still planning on putting out pansies and lettuce starters in early April.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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