State urges support of CT farmers to help fill supply chain gaps

The state is encouraging consumers to look closer to home for their food and milk purchases, as supply chain issues and labor shortages from COVID-19 cause empty shelves and higher prices for some items at grocery stores.

The state Department of Agriculture recently put out information promoting local farms and farmers’ markets as good options for residents’ food sources, saying it could save them money since it cuts out the middle man. Farmers are also reporting they’re not really facing the supply chain problems and so are able to regularly offer their products.

“Supply chain issues have reinforced the importance of robust, diversified local food supply,” said Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Bryan P. Hurlburt.

Lori Cochran Dougall, the executive director for the Westport Farmers’ Market, said creating and strengthening a local, regional food hub system increases the viability of the local economy and decreases reliance on national, or international, food systems.

“If anything, the supply chain issues might be more beneficial for local agriculture,” she said, adding the supply chain from local farms to consumers is reliable and can save money in the long run.

Supply chain issues

This week, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy spoke about the supply chain issues facing grocery stores. Many types of items are in short supply, including pet food and dairy products.

The COVID-19 pandemic — and worker shortages largely due to the omicron variant — is a major cause of these problems, Murphy said.

This includes worker shortages connected to the product, transportation and the stores themselves, grocery store officials said.

“Just like consumers, farms are also seeing increasing costs of electricity, feed, fertilizer, equipment, and labor,” Hurlburt said. “When you buy direct from the farmer you are eliminating the middleman and distribution/transportation costs. This enables them to keep pricing competitive.”

Local farmers said they have not really experienced the availability issues the supply chain problem has caused other places.

Sarah Casel, the co-owner and partner at Calf and Clover Creamery in Cornwall near Kent Falls State Park, said she’s felt it more with higher prices for some of the things she needs, such as the plastic bottles for the milk and glass jars for the yogurt, as well as some of the supplied ingredients, such as sugar. She said the sourcing itself hasn’t been an issue.

Cochran Dougall said availability for local items hasn’t really been affected, even if the farmers themselves might have to adjust.

“(Farmers) are the definition of resiliency,” she said. “They’re also the definition of ingenuity and self-reliance.”

One example is carrying over seeds from the previous year and the emergence of Eco59, a farmer-led initiative to provide seeds in the Northeast and circumvent the supply chain, Cochran Dougall said.

Getting the product to people

Just before the new year, the state agriculture department reminded residents of a variety of ways local farms were getting the food from their fields to people’s homes, including curbside pickup, subscription services, home delivery and community-supported agriculture, or CSAs — some of which were introduced during the pandemic.

“Agriculture, in particular farmers’ markets and farm stands, was deemed essential at the beginning of the pandemic,” Hurlburt said. “Farms shifted to meet the needs of consumers to procure food in a safe manner.”

People also started going to farms more with the stay home orders in 2020 and bought from the farm directly. A list of farms is available on the Connecticut Grown website.

“Farms became a destination – an opportunity for families to be outside to enjoy pick-your-own adventures and reconnect with where their food comes from,” he said.

Casel employs a variety of methods to help get milk, and other products to customers. This includes selling to small grocery stores from Litchfield County down to Danbury and Ridgefield. The farm store also offers a variety of dairy products, meat, eggs and other items.

She and her husband inherited an existing co-op in New Canaan when they took over the business. Under that partnership, a woman with a commercial fridge collects orders, which the creamery then delivers weekly to her home so people in that part of the state can easily get their inventory.

The creamery also sells at the Westport Farmers Market.

Cochran Dougall said the market includes vendors who sell pre-made items who, like area restaurants, are also turning more to local food sources for bulk buying.

She said the chefs who had relationships with local farmers had an easier time getting the ingredients they needed at the start of the pandemic.

“It’s kind of like helping your neighbors,” she said.

It also means that when a customer asks what’s in the soup being sold at the market, the owner can list out the ingredients down to which farm it comes from.

“There’s something beautiful in that,” Cochran Dougall said. “It’s better than reading a label.”

Shift in buying patterns

Casel said they took over operations in 2019, about a year before the pandemic hit.

“It’s been bizarre for us to map out customer demand,” she said, adding they spent the first year building out their creamery and so focused on continuing the raw milk production.

Once the pandemic hit, she said they and other dairy farmers were inundated with requests for milk, prompting them to try to get more cows.

“We saw a huge shift in people’s buying patterns those first three months,” Casel said, adding they were selling out within two hours each day.

The demand has normalized, though how people are buying has had a lasting change. She said about 20 percent of their sales used to be at the farm and 80 percent at grocery stores. When the pandemic hit that flipped and has since leveled off to about 40 percent in stores and 60 percent at the farm. She’s also seen an increase in customers, which she said could be a factor of the pandemic as well as new items hitting the market.

Cochran Dougall noticed a shift at the market and the mom and pop shops she works with too.

“When the pandemic hit, people were crazed to buy local,” she said. “That buying created a demand to farms.”

She said farms had to decide if they were going to increase their operation to meet the demand or continue their operations as usual. She said the farms that realized the increased interest was just a moment in time had more success.

“The value of farmers was escalated,” Cochran Dougall said. “I would hold out a skeptical optimism that it will continue.”

She suspects people might go back to the ease of an online order and forget the impact their dollar has on the local agriculture and overall community. She noted, though, some of that added demand has remained.

“There is a sustained interest in buying local and people have gone through great lengths to do so,” she said.

Buying local

It might be hard to naturally think of buying from Connecticut farms in the winter, especially as snow blankets the ground, but Cochran Dougall said there’s a lot of seasonal food or canned items that make buying local possible year round.

“There is a really beautiful growing pattern,” she said, adding the dark greens, such as spinach and kale, are sweetest in the winter.

Hurlburt said Connecticut has 5,500 farms which offer a variety of products either year round or seasonally. Meats, eggs, jams, jellies, salsas, beverages and dairy products are all available throughout the year. Certain growing approaches have also added to the seasonal produce available.

“Season-extension techniques, including heated greenhouse production, allow some crops to be started earlier (and) last longer,” he said.

Cochran Dougall said there are other benefits to buying local beyond the access to healthy and fresh food.

Buying local also cuts down on transportation, which in turn helps the environment. The close proximity also means consumers can directly speak to the people who grew the food and make sure it lines up with what they’re looking for in terms of organic practices or other growing methods, she said.

The money spent at the farmers’ markets or the farm directly also stays in the community.

“Every time you spend a dollar there, you’re strengthening your community tenfold — not to mention your environment,” she said.