Shrimps to Ohio, crabs to Montana, oysters to Iowa. From his home in Portland, Maine, Eric Pray has shipped seafood all over the country. But when the coronavirus came, he shifted his efforts closer to home. Today, Pray sells lobsters from a homemade tank in his garage.
Coronavirus aside, the U.S. farm-to-table movement has grown in recent years. Savvy consumers want ultra-fresh, vitamin-rich food and new culinary experiences—and they want to know where their food comes from. The closer the better.
But more recently, the local food movement has grown mostly because producers simply can’t rely on getting food to customers far away.
Changes due to the pandemic restrictions closed factories and restaurants and furloughed workers. Supply chains were disrupted or broken altogether. The challenges forced hundreds of fishers, farmers, and food producers to change the way they sell their products. For some, it’s turned problems into opportunities—and new customers.
“When restaurants reopen, we’ll probably keep doing home delivery, because we’ve got a good base of customers,” Pray says.
But for many food producers, the changes haven’t been positive. This spring, U.S. beef and pork processing fell 40% from last year. The price of live lobsters dropped 37% from two years ago.
Before the pandemic hit, Gunthorp Farms in Indiana was selling most of its pasture-raised pork and poultry to upscale restaurants. Almost overnight, restaurants and shops shut down, and the farm’s business dried up.
Gunthorp switched to packaging and selling the pork and poultry elsewhere—but that involved endless hours of work by the family and employees. Greg Gunthorp says, “We made more changes in the first two weeks than we had planned to make in two years.”
Templeton Farm, a small grass-fed beef farm in Vermont, lost its two biggest accounts when restaurants shut down. But around the same time, the phone starting ringing with people seeking locally raised beef, says farmer Bruce Chapell. “Since then, our beef sales have been off the charts,” he says.
Food products that rely heavily on restaurants, like seafood, will need those customers back to survive. For now, Pray, a Maine fisher for three decades, is making ends meet. But the longer restaurants and processing workforces remain unreliable, the tougher his business will get.
One of Pray’s customers, Stephen Harden, admits that “the [local] food is much better quality.” Harden’s reasoning sounds a lot like the Bible’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) He thinks the appeal of buying local is as much about helping neighbors as great food.
Harden says, “My wife and I sort of felt it was our duty to support locally as much as possible.”