Michele Wales jokes that her April hands look more like August hands.
Calloused, sandpapery hands are nothing new for Wales, who manages the Coverdale Farm Preserve in Greenville. But with all the added hand washing, cleaning and sanitizing amid the coronavirus pandemic, the process has sped up. Nonetheless, Wales and her team are adjusting to this new normal.
“We take the health of the site seriously,” she says.
Food safety and worker health precautions are in overdrive as farmers around the First State are experiencing increased demand for their locally grown products, especially given people’s uncertainty about visiting grocery stores.
So how do Delaware farmers protect their own well-being while also providing an essential community service?
Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, explains that agriculture workers are already well prepared for dealing with health concerns, since foodborne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella are somewhat common.
“In some ways, the direct market segment of agriculture has already adapted and is already responding to heightened sanitization and other types of precautions you might take [for foodborne illnesses],” he says.
In addition to their safety procedures already in place, farmers have adopted the newly mandated changes to health protocols, including use of personal protective equipment like face masks and gloves, social distancing measures and contactless sales.
However, even with all the preparedness, it’s uncertain when the pandemic could directly affect Delaware. Rieger says it’s difficult right now to determine how the virus will affect the industry in terms of workers and product supply or demand.
“It’s just too early in the Mid-Atlantic area to say what’s going to happen, because we’re just in planting season,” he explains. “Maybe the timing of this was good for agriculture in this region. Certainly, it wasn’t good for Florida, California or Mexico, because they are harvesting things.”
Coverdale Farm Preserve is owned and operated by the Delaware Nature Society. Now in its 20th year, the farm’s main focus is education, but it began a direct-to-consumer vegetable production line through Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, about 10 years ago, adding pasture-raised eggs five years ago and Thanksgiving turkeys three years ago.
Wales says she’s already seen a jump in CSA registrations compared with April 2019, even before they’ve begun their annual marketing campaign. “We are significantly ahead of where we were this time last year in enrollment,” she explains, especially in their full and bi-weekly share sales. “I think people are looking for a reliable weekly source,” she says.
Totem Farms in Milton is also seeing an uptick in demand.
Operating since 2015, this small-scale organic farm on a former cow pasture grows seasonal vegetables and herbs, including microgreens. Until December, the farm only sold its products through its CSA program and to restaurants. It now also operates a small retail market in its barn, offering its own farm products and prepared food items from other businesses.
Owners Shauna Thompson, Rob Dick and Wayne Hawkins saw demand for their market and CSA exceed normal demand in the early spring. Dick, the primary farmer, attributes this to fear of the grocery store and the peace of mind that comes with knowing where your food is coming from.
“I think most farmers who are able to sell directly to people are going to find that their business will be up,” he says.
Both Coverdale Farm Preserve and Totem Farms cater mainly to consumers rather than restaurants, a net positive when some farms around the country have had to destroy crops because of limited demand from shuttered or takeout-only establishments.
Delaware farmers are also looking at how to better protect themselves from COVID-19.
Wales says Coverdale takes the health and safety of the farm and its workers seriously. In late March, they participated in a webinar from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture on how to react quickly and thoughtfully to the pandemic. Then they made a continuity of business plan.
“I’m actually quite proud of what we’ve done,” she says.
Wales says the plan’s primary focus is keeping workers and the food supply safe, detailing a chain of command if someone on the farm gets sick and their responsibilities need to be handled.
It also includes the inventory of livestock with their ages, vet records and nutrition profile. Those who are normally in control of vegetable production now understand lambing procedures and vice versa. Equipment records and locations are readily available.
“We basically mapped out the entire farm operation,” she says, and designated color-coded “zones” for practicing distancing.
Red zones are intense production areas for the core farmer team only. Yellow is where the organization and land management staff keep equipment, sharing the area with the farming team. Green zones are the safer areas, which are now closed to the public. Activity hubs and equipment were also identified. Each now has a standardized cleaning kit, so everything can be sanitized before and after every use. Certain tasks also now require gloves.
“Everything gets cleaned like 100 times a day,” Wales says.
And then there are smaller changes to the workday: spaced-out lunch times, socially distanced meetings and a pledge to restrict personal travel. Wales says as safety recommendations to prevent the virus continue to be released, they’re looking at other measures, like wearing masks.
Both Coverdale and Totem now have a new contactless system for sales where customers drive up to pick up preordered boxes of food only the farming staff has touched.
As COVID-19 touches nearly every aspect of daily life, the virus will no doubt affect our relationship with the food supply. Wales says changes could be both positive and negative, but she hopes it pushes people to purchase their fresh, sustainable ingredients locally. She also wants people to taste the difference in their produce and value the relationship with a local farmer.
“It’s an important attitude to adopt,” she says.
Dick agrees. He says it’s not sustainable to ship food products all over the world when you can grow locally and buy what you need fresh. However, since COVID-19 isn’t considered foodborne, he’s unsure it will change people’s buying choices permanently.
Rieger agrees that it’s hard to change consumer habits, so while a segment of the community may decide to shift to buying produce locally, others may return to their grocery stores.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” he says of what the future holds.
For now, Wales said the farm will continue to focus on feeding Delawareans using new safety protocols, noting that adding a few extra steps to their daily work routine doesn’t cause delays.
While she knows she and her team aren’t the health care workers on the front lines, she says they have found a renewed commitment to their jobs amid the pandemic.
“We really do feel we have an elevated sense of purpose to keep people fed,” she says.
Published as “Plowing Ahead” in the June 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.