ALLEGHENY FRONT – On March 16th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf first ordered restaurants and bars, and all non-essential businesses throughout the state to close, to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. It caused a wave of concern in the food industry: which businesses were considered non-essential?
“So there was this flurry of activity initially that at least on first glance, concern that this food system would potentially be at risk of operating,” said state Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding.His office got a ton of phone calls, “from farms worried about milk pickup, to livestock auctions, whether they could operate…whether the food processing and manufacturing sector was required to shut down if they were producing products that may be considered non-essential, like candies,” Russell said.
At the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, executive director Hannah Smith-Brubaker also got many panicked calls and emails, mostly focused on whether the state considered farms, livestock processing, and farm markets “essential businesses.”
“Many, many, many farmers markets across the state have shut down,” Smith-Brubaker said.
In Pittsburgh, the Bloomfield Winter Market is one that’s closed temporarily, at least until March 28.
Within days, Governor Wolf clarified his remarks. Agriculture and related businesses are considered essential, and are not being asked to close.
Even with the state’s support to stay open, Shapiro is expecting a big drop in foot traffic and sales, so they’ve spent many hours at the kitchen table discussing how to safely get food to their customers.
“It’s still kind of unclear how we’re going to get that food into people’s hands without regular farmers markets for us at least because that is about 85 percent of our business,” Shapiro said.
The state agriculture department has issued guidance. While allowing farmers markets to continue, it’s asking for safety precautions that could include new pick up options, or direct deliveries to customers.
“Agriculture’s role is unquestionable: access to food is a right; we need local agriculture now more than ever,” Redding said in a press release.
Dairy farmers are doing OK
Not everyone in food production is worried. Dairy producer Jason Nailor said he hasn’t been affected at all by the restrictions around coronavirus. Nailor runs a 75-cow dairy near Harrisburg with his family.
“The only impact I have seen is with the kids being out of school. I have a lot more help than I normally do through the week,” he laughed.
Nailor said he actually kind of likes it when he sees milk shelves empty at the supermarket, because it means people are buying his product. Despite worries about coronavirus, and maybe some consumer hoarding, Nailor doesn’t see any reason to worry about the milk supply. The cows will still need to be milked.
“The farmers are working 365 days a year, no matter what the weather, no matter what happens in the world, we always have to work,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you produce beef or you produce pork, you still have to feed and take care of your animals daily.”
Still, there have been some hiccups because of the increased consumer demand for milk. Redding said just this week, the state diverted a milk truck headed to a cheese processing plant in central PA, and sent it to a milk plant in Philadelphia instead.
“It had to go to the location where they were actually able to process fluid milk in half gallons and gallon containers,” Redding said.
It’s been a scramble, making decisions like this in real time according to Redding. But it’s also forcing the state and its food industries to find new ways of securing food for people.
This story originally appeared on The Allegheny Front.