Innovation and tenacity: New ASAP report shows farmers faced big challenges in 2020

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE - The pandemic upended months of business planning and decimated restaurant sales for local farmers.

That's part of the message from a recent report from The Local Food Research Center, a program of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which annually surveys farms in Western North Carolina and some surrounding counties.

The other part of the message: resilience.

In what should come as a surprise to virtually no one, this year's survey was heavily influenced by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local farms. 

Of the 208 regional farmers who took part in the survey, 52% said they had access to fewer local market outlets for their products last year, a 41% increase over the previous year. That number is influenced by closed markets, delayed openings and limits on the number of vendors

However, the loss of restaurant sales was the biggest disruption for many, with 74% reporting a decrease in business with local restaurants, a result of temporary or permanent closures and seating capacity limitations.

More:ASAP's Farms Feeding Families connects local farmers and food distribution sites 

But if pivot was the word of 2020, farmers were well aware. 

A significant number of farms opened or ramped up sales through farm stands, online stores and CSAs for the first time last year as a way to connect with customers.

Eileen Droescher of Ol' Turtle Farm delivering kale to St. John's Pantry in McDowell County.

Nicole DelCogliano and Gaelan Corozine, the husband and wife team behind Green Toe Ground Farm, scrambled to develop an online store and launch a CSA for the first time in 13 years.

It was a move they made in response to the uncertainty surrounding when — and whether — their usual tailgate market would open. 

"And that was a success, launching the online store," DelCogliano said. "Suddenly there was this need for people who wanted local food to feel secure, and they wanted to get it in a safe way."

More:Coronavirus: Unprecedented strain on food supply has local businesses working overtime

It was also a way to reconnect with the community in a time when people were particularly sensitive to foodways and the functioning of their supply chains. 

"It also allowed existing customers in Asheville to preorder and come and get their stuff and not have to browse around the market," she added. "They liked that convenience."

The interim ASAP Farmers Market at A-B Tech is designed to keep shoppers and vendors safe.

Green Toe Ground also created a program that enabled customers to preload gift cards and then deduct farm purchases from that, which earned the farm a couple of thousand dollars in early spring 2020. 

"It was really nice to have that pocket of money as we were going into all that uncertainty," DelCogliano said. 

More:Asheville Citizen Times wins journalism honors for outstanding work

Uncertainty extended beyond sales, with 63% of ASAP's responding farmers reporting challenges sourcing supplies and equipment.

More than half said they also had problems processing animals because of closures or backups at meat processing facilities.

Still, only 7% of farmers told ASAP they planned to scale down production in response to uncertainty this year.

Instead, they're planning to get innovative. Nearly 80% of farmers plan to adjust their business plans for 2021, including expanding online sales platforms.

The majority of ASAP's respondents were North Carolinians who have been farming for fewer than 10 years and who own or operate small-scale farms.

Demonstration of social distancing at the ASAP Farmers Market at A-B Tech.

DelCogliano, also director of farmer programs for the Organic Growers School, said the pandemic exacerbated problems such young growers face in getting started, including market access.

In addition, beginning farmers, many with no payroll or years of profit and loss statements, were ineligible for many federal loans.

But the pandemic, she said, also gave young farmers a chance to display their strength and adaptability.

"I think the pandemic, in some weird way, allowed people who were interested in farming to take that step forward and say, 'Yeah, I'm gonna do this.'"

More:For once and future farmer, going back to the land helps keep his restaurants open

It connected people to the importance of local food and also had many people reevaluating their careers and figuring out a next step, she said. 

Liz and Rich Mason, owners of Honey Bee Hills Farm in Prospect, Hill, N.C. set up their tent at the Fearrington Village Farmer's Market in Fearrington, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

This year's OGS class for beginning farmers had more participants than ever before, DelCogliano said. 

The biggest trend among beginning farmers: how to build food equity into their business models.

More:We Give a Share program paying Asheville farmers to feed communities shows strong early success

But it's not only new farmers thinking about how to make food more accessible. 

Green Toe Ground, with the help of ASAP's Farms Feeding Families Program, gave food back its own community this year. ASAP's program paid the farmers approximately market value for the food

It was a gratifying way to connect to people at home and a revenue stream that helped recoup loss from local restaurant sales. "Otherwise we might have been trouble," DelCogliano said.

Moving into the 2021 growing season, there's even more reason for hope, as support for local food seems on the rise.

Despite the many challenges farmers faced during the pandemic, nearly half of those surveyed reported higher sales in 2020 over the previous year. 

Read more about the state of local agriculture at

More:Planting seeds of revolution: Asheville chefs, farmers unite behind accessible fresh food


Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

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