As a way of dealing with negativity, humans have a tendency to try to find a silver lining. During the COVID-19 pandemic, farmer Michael Parkot says there’s an upside in Western New Yorkers thinking more about their food and its provenance. Heightened awareness and more time to shop are among the reasons that local and regional smaller farmers are experiencing an increase in business.
In a mid-April phone interview with UpstartNY, Parkot, owner of Always Something Farm in Genesee County, said, “In the last three weeks, more and more people are embracing the local food movement, in support of our neighborhood and region.”
And producers of locally raised meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables are finding more ways to get their wares into local homes.
Parkot’s farm supplies heritage pork products to restaurants and individuals who love the succulent meats from his Mangalitsa-hybrid pigs. (The animals, a Hungarian crossbreed, are prized for their flavor.)One of the Always Something Farm hogs.
He praises his restaurant customers for their efforts to source locally raised products. “When restaurants proudly post on social media about using our products, that influences people and encourages local farms,” he says. “The restaurants are saying that our products are such high quality, they’re worth featuring.”
The feeling is mutual: local farmers want to supply locally owned restaurants, so their food products are served near where they are grown; it creates a desirable food system, with a symbiotic relationship between farmers, restaurateurs and chefs, and the people who eat there.
When restaurants can’t open and can’t serve these custom-farmed products, that throws a wrench into a supply chain that has been steadily strengthening.
Parkot had just delivered two of his pigs for USDA slaughter in March when he started getting phone calls from his restaurant customers, cancelling a majority of their orders. “I told them not to worry about meat; they had their businesses to worry about,” says Parkot. He then planned a pop-up shop at his farm, where he could carefully observe all social distancing protocols while serving local shoppers seeking quality pork products.
He credits a new Facebook group, Find Your Western New York Farmer for assisting him and fellow farmers to connect with more people who want to shop local. “The group was founded early this month, and in a few days it had 2,000 members,” he says. The page even has a Google map with markers and links to farmers with eggs, chickens, vertically-grown produce, and more. Like Parkot, these are all small farmers who are ready to sell directly to customers.
Strictly observing all COVID-19 protocols for health and safety is key, so farmers who have piled on to the Facebook group are offering free or inexpensive delivery to help new customers get quality local foods to their home kitchens.
Parkot says, “Many people don’t realize how much food is available in Western New York year-round. This leads to seasonal eating—the goal of a true locavore—where you source your food within 100 miles of where it’s grown and where you live.”
Richard Bailey is one such customer; while he was already sourcing meat and other food locally from family-owned and sustainably farmed businesses as much as possible, he says that the pandemic has made him even more attuned to where his food comes from. “We can’t just run out and get whatever we want all the time like we used to,” says Bailey, a history professor at Canisius College. “I really like purchasing meat from a local family, where you know how the animals have been raised and treated.”
Parkot hopes this awareness continues to build for his enterprise and the good work of his fellow small farmers. “We have a short growing season here,” he said. “Animals raised for food are also responsive to climate and seasonality. It’s a delicate balance, and anything can cause a shift in either direction.”
Parkot has changed the operations on his farm quite a bit in the past year. He’d determined that poultry wasn’t as productive for him, and let his flock dwindle from 300 to 100. And, in addition to wholesaling pork products from purebred and hybrid Mangalitsa pigs, he now works with a vendor in nearby Hartland, New York, with a USDA license; when the meat is processed there, Parkot is permitted to sell it to individuals.
“Home consumers generally have limited freezer space. We were missing 90–95% of the available customers who go to a grocery store every week to buy what they need,” Parkot says. “Working with our vendor gives us meat to sell at pop-up shops.”
These selling opportunities are surprisingly productive. “Instead of going to a market for an entire day, our farm pop-ups can do two-and-a-half times the sales in three hours. It’s pretty wild. I wasn’t expecting that,” he says.
Bailey attended the pop-up market in April, where he was pleased to connect personally with the farmer and his family; he follows Parkot on Instagram, and learned about it there.
The pop-up markets and the ability to sell directly to home consumers also proved that there are people who will pay a higher price for higher quality meat. “Bacon is our most popular product,” Parkot says. “We limit people’s purchases so we don’t run out. Home cooks right now are also interested in cuts like pork shoulders and chops.”
In addition to knowing where the food comes from, and the fact that it tastes better and is frequently of higher quality, Bailey says that there’s a humane element to his desire to shop and eat locally. “At a moment with so much suffering, when businesses are struggling, and people are losing jobs, the idea that you may pay a little more for a product, but that you are supporting someone, is appealing to me,” he says. “It shows the community caring for each other as neighbors—and helping famers survive.”
Parkot hopes that as the community and region recovers from the pandemic, consumers remain committed to a “shop and eat local” mindset. He and fellow farmers aspire to continue developing a sustainable business model for locally grown and raised farm products. He says, “We’re trying to build the synergy and lift everyone up.”