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Eric Pray is used to shipping seafood all over the country. But since the coronavirus took hold, he has focused more on selling lobsters from a homemade tank in his garage.
Pray of Portland is among hundreds of fishermen, farmers and food producers who have switched to a direct-to-consumer model amid the virus outbreak. The pandemic has stressed and at times disrupted supply chains, closed restaurants and changed the way consumers buy food, leaving some producers to scramble to find a new way to reach their customers.
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The farm-to-table movement in the United States has grown in recent years as consumers increasingly demanded locally sourced foods. But in recent weeks, the movement has grown out of necessity as some producers cannot rely on the complex network of processors, distributors and middlemen to get food to customers.
For some, challenges have turned into opportunities and new customers.
“When the restaurants reopen, we’ll likely continue to do door-to-door delivery because we have a good customer base,” Pray said.
But that’s not good news for many American food producers. In late April and early May, U.S. beef and pork processing capacity was down 40% from last year, according to Jayson Lusk, head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University. Factories are now mostly back online, but at reduced capacity, with beef and pork factories around 10% to 15% lower than last year, he said.
Some sectors have also suffered declines in value, in part because the restaurants on which they normally depend are closed. Live 1.25-pound lobsters were worth $ 6.74 a pound in the northeast in April, 13% lower than a year ago and 37% lower than two years ago.
“The two biggest problems are to facilitate distribution throughout the supply chain while protecting the health of workers and to rearrange the demand for food in such a way as to avoid further disruption,” said LaPorchia Collins, professor in the department. of Economics from Tulane University.
Before the pandemic, Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana sold most of its pasture-raised pork and poultry to upscale restaurants, including those started by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, as well as to retail stores. of cold cuts. Then, practically overnight, restaurants and stores closed, drying up farm business.
The farm was able to switch to retail packaging and sell pork and poultry elsewhere, but it was far from easy, after endless hours of work by family and employees, said Greg Gunthorp. This involved changing labeling, adding barcodes, and slicing and packaging portions rather than selling in bulk.
“It’s been a lot, way too much work, a lot more changes. We made more changes in the first two weeks than we planned to make in two years, ”he said.
Templeton Farm, a small, grass-fed beef farm in East Montpelier, Vermont, lost its largest business – two restaurant accounts – when it had to close. But around the same time, the phone started ringing with people looking for locally raised beef, farmer Bruce Chapell said.
“Since then our beef sales have been off the charts,” he said.
PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Ill. Has doubled its consumer-backed agriculture this season, where customers pay up front for produce throughout the season to 322 members, said Katie Bishop, one of the farmers. And he has around 75 on his waiting list, she said.
However, it is not known whether this new model will be sustainable once the coronavirus crisis has passed.
Food products that rely heavily on restaurants, such as seafood, ultimately need these customers, said John Sackton, industry analyst and publisher of SeafoodNews.com. But for now, selling directly to customers is one way to get a better price for these products than they typically would see, he said.
Pray, a three-decade-long Maine fisherman, said he has managed to make ends meet so far, but it will be more of a challenge for restaurants and processors to remain inaccessible. One of her clients, South Portland anesthesiologist Stephen Harden, said the appeal was as much about helping neighbors as it was about buying good food.
“My wife and I kind of felt it was our duty to support as much as possible locally,” he said. “And of course the food is much better.”