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March 30, 2020

Farmer, consumer resources sprout as season begins amidst COVID-19

Photo / Maureen Milliken Farm stands, like this one in Belgrade, farmers markets and CSAs are considered essential businesses and can stay open during the COVID-19 crisis. The state government and organizations across the state are providing resources for both industry businesses and consumers as Maine's growing season begins.
Where farmers, food producers and consumers can access COVID-19 informaiton and resources
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As the state's farmers begin the growing season, a variety of resources for the agriculture and food-producing industry have sprung up to help businesses and consumers navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, the Maine Organic Gardeners and Farmers Association and the Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets all offer a variety of resources and information for the industry.

Gov. Janet Mills last week ordered all nonessential businesses to close physical locations that deal with the public or vendors. Essential businesses can stay open, with attention to public safety. They include most agriculture businesses related to farming include food processing, grocery, veterinary clinics and animal feed and supply stores.

Maine has more than 8,000 working farms, with $3.8 billion in sales and 24,000 jobs, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. The state had more than 130 summer farmers markets last year, and 30 winter markets, according to the Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets.

Portland entrepreneur David Stone, founder of Forager, which connects farmers to local markets, has mobilized to work with various parties, including government agriculture officials, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and the private sector, including major buyers like Hannaford.

“During the last 10 days I’ve been on multiple calls with farms and local food suppliers across the state — 75, in-fact — hosted by Forager. Many have seen their business evaporate overnight. Forager has been developing a cross industry sector/government initiative to try and make sure our farms stay in business,” Stone told Mainebiz.  

“The last thing we want farms to do is stop planting and producing, as we may see disruptions in the fresh conventional food supply chain. And of course these farms and artisanal dairy and grocery suppliers are vital to our economy and community," he added.

Some of the resources that have sprouted in the past couple of weeks related to agriculture and keeping business going during the COVID-19 pandemic include:

DACF resources

Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is urging those involved in agriculture and food-producing businesses to check the COVID-19 page on its website frequently for updates. The page includes a link to a guide with a lengthy list of what types of businesses and functions are included as essential.

"We are in contact with producers and agricultural organizations across Maine in order to minimize the negative impact on growers and address your concerns and issues," the DACF says on its website.

The department, in order to keep producers, businesses and service providers as up-to-date as possible on health and safety issues, is also maintaining the most recent information and guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control  and Prevention and from federal and state partners. The page is updated frequently, the department says.


Image / University of Maine Cooperative Extension
More than 200 farms, from Aroostook to York counties, are listed on an website and interactive map that provides information about farms, their products and hours during the COVID-19 crisis, one of several resources available to Maine farmers and consumers.

Farm product, pickup directory

The Cooperative Extension Service has created a Maine farm product and pick-up directory that provides information on available local farm products and alternative pickup options, developed by farmers statewide.

The extension service worked with Allison Lakin, owner of East Forty Farm and Dairy and Lakin's Gorges Cheese in Waldoboro, to develop the database of Maine farmers' creative distribution strategies implemented for the public.

The directory, which includes an interactive map and other resources, lists farms across the state, from the Aroostook Beef Co. in Fort Kent to Andy's Edible Gardens in Eliot.

Farm stands, farmers markets, CSAs

Farmers markets, farm stands and consumer supported agriculture programs are all considered essential services. The markets are considered "critical food sources for many Mainers, including those living in rural areas and those using federal food benefits," the DACF says on its website.

The department has strongly urged the businesses that have contact with the public or more than one employee take steps to ensure social distancing and health and safety measures.

The department has a resource guide on its site for farm stands, farmers markets and CSA programs with a list of recommendations, including things like vendor booth spacing and plan site layout, not having music performances or demonstrations, order-ahead options and more.

The Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets also has a list of winter markets and measures they are taking, as well as links to other resources.

Forager forum

Forager, the digital tool that connects producers to the market, is hosting virtual roundtable discussions and connecting critical voices in local food, to share resources, support one another and to ensure that consumers have access to fresh, local food.

It also has an online forum to connect the food community.

Volunteer help for dairy farmers

A clearinghouse of help for the state's dairy farmers, where volunteers can sign up to help with routine chores, has been created by the extension service and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Dairy farms "are not able to simply stop operations," said a news release about the program. "Dairy cows need to be fed and milked daily, and there are multiple other essential tasks. While many farmers in Maine have additional labor, others rely on themselves or immediate family members to continue to function.

The UMaine Extension Waldo County office is compiling a list of available people with some experience on dairy farms, especially milkers. Names and contact information will then be shared with those dairy farmers requesting assistance.

Daily connection for farmers

The extension service is also offering Daily Maine Farmer online connection sessions, from 10-11 a.m. weekdays, for those in the industry to share information.

The sessions began March 23 as a way for farmers and farm service providers to share what is happening on their farms and to engage with experts. Sessions are scheduled until April 6, with further sessions considered if needed.

In addition to farmers, representatives from the DACF, Maine USDA Farm Service Agency and Maine Department of Labor are taking part to discuss programs available for farmers and to answer farmers' questions. 

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