Let me tell you a little something about farming…during a pandemic.
Written by: Jodi Gauker
Farmer, Gauker Farms (www.gaukerfarms.com)
I grew up a regular kid in rural Western PA, surrounded by hills and dairy farms on our one acre, postage stamp property. My dad worked during the day and helped out on neighboring farms in the evening; mostly fixing equipment and sometimes helping with farm work. It instilled in me an appreciation of where my food came from, how fresh sweet corn tastes picked right off the stalk, and how I absolutely never wanted to marry a farmer because I really liked vacations and spending summers at the local swimming pool.
Fast forward to today – I’m the wife of a 9th generation Berks County farmer, and mom of a 10th generation farm kid. Here we are – living the dream! Through our Facebook page, (https://www.facebook.com/GaukerFarms/), I have the opportunity to share our farm story with adoring fans. I’d like to say most of them are there because they love our beef, but honestly, they’re mostly there for the ridiculous stories of farm life and to follow our 10th generation farm kid, Callie and our wanna-be farm dog, Darla Bones. Callie, has been nicknamed Cheese – because she loves to smile and she loves cheese. Social media has been great way to educate the public about farming and our food system; both of which I am very passionate!
Due this COVID-19 pandemic, many of you have experienced shortages of some of your favorite staples in the grocery stores. How many of you shop for meat, milk, or eggs at the grocery store? Pick me, pick me! I do! Most people do. I buy as much as I can directly from our local farmers, but I still buy my milk at the store because I know that purchase DOES support my local farmers. We’re a Clover Farms only house, here, because that’s who my husband’s family shipped their milk to when they were still dairy farming up until December 2006.
So, a bunch of people went to the grocery store and there was no milk and meat. No beef, which is what we raise on our farm. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is hoarding behavior – like toilet paper. In the case of meat, some of our big packers/processors across the US closed because of high rates of COVID-19 positive cases among employees working in those plants. (There are still no known cases of COVID-19 from food. Keep that in mind. Your food is safe.) Those closings have caused a temporary shortage in proteins on your grocery shelves. In the case of eggs, a lot of people are cooking from home and eggs are a cheap and great source of protein. So, while it wasn’t hoarding, there just weren’t enough eggs in the grocery store supply chain. And (large) companies can’t just switch packaging on a dime. For instance, restaurant and institutions to retail for sale in stores. So as a result, shortages in grocery stores happened.
Then people PANICKED! They flocked to (or bombarded) their local farmer for the proteins they couldn’t find in the store. We were part of that. Our fellow direct market farmers are apart of that. Understand that since 2017, I’ve had to book my monthly dates with our butcher a full year ahead! In August 2016, I had dates for 2017. That takes some serious planning! USDA inspected butchers – the ones I need to use to sell beef to you by the cut – are very busy. They are small, and they need to plan. They try to be flexible to support their local farmers, but they need to ensure cash flow to keep the lights on and the doors open; just like any other small business. So, I can’t just fit in an extra steer or two, or 4 because people are now scared of grocery store meat or shortages.
I really wish it didn’t take a pandemic for many of you to care about your food or your local farmer! But hopefully this will be an opportunity for you all to better understand why building relationships with your local farmers are so important! And why #beloyalbuylocal is so vital to supporting not only your local economy, providing fresh whole foods to your tables but keeping the food supply chain intact! I bet until now you never even gave it a second thought.
That said, I’m out of beef until June. I can’t get more steers for my farm. I just can’t take more to a local butcher. I am taking 2 steers for customers, but even that date got pushed back because that custom butcher is helping out a farmer who has 1,000 pigs that must be sold by May 29 or they’ll be euthanized. So many say “that’s so much waste! Why would they do that”? Look around! Farmers are dumping milk, euthanizing livestock, because the middle-man – the packers – were closed, or are unable to pivot their packaging in time. The “I need it right now!” system does not work in a pandemic situation. Yes, farmers have back up plans. And that’s why they’re spreading dumped milk as fertilizer in the fields or sending pigs to a local butcher to feed local families. And I’ll get those customers their quarters and halves but it will take a few weeks longer. And it will take me a few months to catch up on the huge list of orders people have placed for beef because they’ve decided they’d like to know their farmer.
Please know this time is really, truly stressful for farmers, a population that already has a high rate of suicide. Mental health resources have been shared with farmers in many ways over the past year especially. If I’m being honest, I’m personally having a truly hard time working full time, trying to prepare Cheese for kindergarten in the fall, and going through the tremendous amount of messages and emails from mostly well meaning people who don’t know us but want (or need) beef from us sooner than later. And that’s just my story – there are many other farmers in more dire circumstances than my problems of not being able to juggle. Please understand I’m truly grateful that consumers care about where their food comes from, but small farmers are not at all prepared for the “I need it right now” system – and we left that system because we know it doesn’t work. We’ll need your patience, but we’re absolutely happy you’ve found us.