By Elizabeth Henderson
“Farming through a pandemic has been an exhausting, but exciting, endeavor. The hardest part has been the lack of social connection. Our community is one of the biggest parts of our CSA; it’s part of our mission statement: Keep farming, feed people, build community.” Alyssa DesRosier, Assistant Farm Manager
The COVID -19 crisis has exposed minor cracks and deep craters in the US food supply chain. Dairies that sold milk to processors that only supply restaurants and food services had the heartbreaking task of dumping millions of gallons of milk.When giant meat processing plants closed down because so many of the workers were infected, hog farmers had to “euthanize” thousands of hogs by drowning, shooting and suffocating. Ordered to reopen when the administration declared that it is essential to maintain the meat supply, at least 32,099 meatpacking and processing workers have contracted the virus and at least 109 have died. The crisis has also revealed that family-scale farms that are deeply embedded in their communities have been able to pivot nimbly to make high quality, locally grown and processed foods available while keeping everyone – farm family, farm workers and customers – safe.
By March 20, within days of the Covid-19 shut down, Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, CT. was taking orders via email and a week later running a new on-line store not only to sell winter greens from their own greenhouse, but to offer products from neighboring farms that had lost markets when restaurants and schools closed. To learn more about how the farm made this switch so quickly and what it cost them to do so, I called lead farmer Steve Munno to hear his story. As a fellow member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Interstate Council and co-chair of our policy committee, I wanted to get a snapshot while memories are fresh and collect the details so that our policy committee can advocate for the real needs of our farmer members before state and federal governments where decisions are underway on allocating stimulus funds that may help farms survive the pandemic.
Steve Munno has been the Farm Manager since the start of Massaro Community Farm eleven years ago when he answered the call for a farmer who could organize a CSA combined with hunger relief and educational programming. Having trained at UC Santa Cruz and then worked with the Food Project, Steve was excited to shape a farm that would combine organic farming with food justice. In answer to my question about the origin of his commitment to social justice, Steve replied, “The injustices of our world, my own privileges and the need to actively work for change were evident early on, so these are the initial seeds. From there, over the years I got to study and work with people and at organizations where social justice was a pertinent part of the conversation or integral to the mission.” By 2020, the farm had an executive director and a staff of eight, including an education director, a CSA with 250 shares, sales at local farmers’ markets and area restaurants. In addition to commercial sales, Massaro has made a commitment to donate 10% of all production to local hunger relief agencies. The farm has given away over 65,000 pounds of food since 2010, raising funds to pay for the donations and educational programs with such annual community building events as an on farm dinner and a bikathon. Steve lives in the farm house with his young family, his wife and two children, Vivian who just turned 3 and Miles who will have his first birthday in August, so farm safety also means family safety.
The farm takes its name from the Italian family that ran a small dairy with a flock of chickens from 1916 till the death of the last farming member in 2007, when the town of Woodbridge took ownership to protect the land. Some local residents wanted a baseball field. A larger and more persistent group wanted farming to continue so they established a non-profit that leases 57 acres from the town. The active board shapes the farm’s policies, supports educational programming and helps raise funds. Thousands of people have volunteered to participate in the farm’s many activities.
When Connecticut became a pandemic hot spot in early March, there were two other staff people who had been working with Steve through the winter. Together, they had to figure out how to keep the farm open and keep themselves and customers safe. Lindsay Browning, who works in the farm office, had experience with Square (an on-line order program), so they used that system to set up a store with on-line ordering and pick-ups at the farm. Since farmer friends had lost their sales outlets, Steve added their offerings to the list. The farm has a mailing list of 3000, so it was not hard to attract customers. Within a week, the farm was providing once a week pick-up on Fridays that have continued weekly ever since. They schedule customer arrivals at half hour intervals – safe spacing requirements and the time slots limit the orders to 150. It takes Steve and his staff all day to bundle the produce which the week of this interview included strawberries, lettuce and leeks along with products from other vendors. Customers drive thru the farm parking area stopping at the barn where farm staff, gloved and masked, bring out the orders, placing them on a table for no touch retrieval or pop them into the trunk.
Changing to meet this moment is big effort and expensive. Assistant Farm Manager Alyssa DesRosier is also a quilter so she made cloth masks for the crew. I asked her to reflect on her experience and she wrote: “Everyone who works at Massaro farms does so because we care about providing healthy food for our community. When I made masks for the staff, I sewed hearts on them to remind everyone that even though they couldn’t see our smiling faces, we were here for them and cared about them. I am so proud of our team for all of the extra work that went into creating the farm store and online ordering system. Steve has done an incredible job organizing all of this, and it’s an honor to work with him. The farm staff had to put in more hours earlier in the season and change our crop plans to ensure that we could provide food for our customers when they needed it the most.”
By mid-June the farm has had to spend over $1000 on disposable gloves and extra packaging materials, but so far, no one on the farm or any of their immediate friends has gotten sick. Customers are very appreciative of the service.
Steve talked about the other things that are different this year. To meet the big surge in requests for CSA shares, they have expanded membership by 30 households to 300. The Massaro CSA offers a 20-week season, and also a 10-week option, with the choice of any 10 weeks out of the 20 scheduled in advance so the farm knows what to expect. (Steve did not want to deal with different share sizes.) A lot of the CSA members are involved with the school system, either public schools or the university and go away for a few weeks during summer vacation, so the 10-week option is convenient. The CSA makes up the bulk of the farm’s sales, around 75 %, with the rest split between farmers’ markets and restaurants. The CSA is the main focus. On weeks when produce was light, Steve explained, they would sell less at the markets. In previous seasons, CSA pick up at our farm has been ‘market style’, where subscribers select their produce from bins that the crew sets out for them. This year the farm will be bagging or boxing the shares, about 250 per week. There are 300 subscribers total, with 170 picking up weekly and 130 picking up alternating weeks.
With Covid-19, the farmers’ markets have changed their rules to require that all sales are ordered and paid for in advance, a system that does not work well for Massaro. It is a matter of logistics, Steve explains. Harvest for the CSA takes place on 3 – 5 days a week with what is extra going to sales for the farmers’ markets. In past years, Steve had a sense of what they would bring to market, but was able to make adjustments at the last minute to accommodate fluctuations in share numbers and production from week to week. This year, he would have to put the information online early in the week, confirm what they have, and receive and pack orders before going to market. He wants to support the other vendors and going to market is a big social thing for the family, but he and his staff are evaluating whether they can handle the safety of it.
Steve expects minimal sales to restaurants this year. The basis for those sales is often relationships, but since Massaro has a higher price point than other providers, Steve thinks he will not get many orders.
By contrast, Steve hopes to be able to increase the amount of produce the farm donates for hunger relief. Demand is up and he has had requests from new organizations like the mutual aid groups in New Haven. While the CSA does have a few shares that are purchased for donation, most of the shares go to people who can pay. Farm income from those sales covers operating costs, including staff salaries. The farm’s initial capitalization and money to buy new equipment and make major repairs depend on donations, grants from private foundations and state and federal programs. Like many not-for-profits, Massaro will have to get creative this year to find substitutes for on-farm fundraisers – the spring plant sale with music, the Labor Day dinner that attracted 180 people last year, and the summer camp.
Massaro has had to cancel all on-farm programs except for use of the nature trail. For the first years of the farm, Chris ran the educational programs himself together with board member and a few retired teachers who formed an education committee. Last year, they hired an education director to service the school groups that come year round for after school programs, manage volunteers, and run the summer camp for children 5 to 9 and weekend programs for families. Also cancelled was an April field day on Food Justice Certification in partnership with the Agricultural Justice Project and NOFA and an on-farm internship offered by a local high school. The farm will offer on-line programs for children.
To be sure of enough labor in case of illness, Steve plans to hire at least two extra staffers. Seven of the current staff of eight have already worked at the farm, know one another and get along well. Steve’s policy is to avoid reliance on volunteers or apprenticeships of what he refers to as “hazy legality.” He calls the employees staff and pays hourly wages. They are slowly figuring out how to work together safely. Steve prefers working as a group to get things done, but this year they are breaking into smaller teams. They stagger lunchtime. Only one person can be in the farm truck at a time. The break room is too small to use. Everyone wears a mask when they are together in the barn and they wear gloves for harvesting as an extra precaution, though it is not that different from their usual food safety protocols.
Overall, Steve says things have been going fairly smoothly. He feels grateful that his 3 year old daughter and baby son are isolated on the farm with space to play and there is plenty of food. “I am grateful and privileged to be here at this moment,” Steve says. “I feel grateful that people are taking the safety protocols seriously. I don’t want to get sick – my kids, hundreds of people rely on us for food, and our staff for work. In farming, every year is different, but I am hoping for a particularly bountiful year. And looking forward – I hope the renewed interest in local produce will not be short lived, and that the CSA will be full by winter, and not wait till May.”
Even before the pandemic, farm costs had been going up and all the new safety measures have added to the expenses. The extra price point Massaro Farm is able to charge for high quality, certified organic produce is still not enough, Steve says, to pay his staff what they are worth – “I don’t think any of my team is compensated enough. We need to make larger changes so we can pay every one better.”
While mainstream supply chains suffered major snags this spring, organic CSA farms like Massaro have been able to nimbly reorient marketing and production to serve the urgent needs of their communities. But these adjustments come with a cost – the additional investments needed to buy protective equipment, packaging supplies, and to pay the fees for on-line services; and the emotional and physical wear and tear on the farmers and their crews. The first rounds of federal stimulus money have followed the usual well-worn channels into the bank accounts of the biggest industrial farms. The challenge for NOFA and our allies is to divert the flow into investments that support farms like Massaro and build the localized, socially just, ecological and resilient farm and food system we want for our future.