December 8, 2021 — Today a coalition of groups released a report highlighting lessons learned from the pandemic for Maine’s food system. A collaboration between the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI), Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), the report offers a snapshot of how Maine’s food system is being affected by COVID-19.
Surveys of stakeholders throughout the food system conducted in early 2021 revealed key findings illustrating areas of resiliency as well as areas of needed improvement. One of the most notable findings was a marked increase in farmers purchasing agricultural products from other farmers, which more than doubled as a result of the pandemic. As many farms lost markets — including restaurants, farmers’ markets and institutions — due to COVID, they needed to turn to or create new ones, and farm-to-farm purchasing is one of the most utilized and successful market channels that developed.
“We saw the new or strengthened mutually beneficial relationships among local farmers as a point of great resilience during the pandemic and we aim to learn more about how farmers organized and became focal in direct-to-consumer marketing strategies within Maine communities. We will use the information gathered in this study to inform how we will aid continuing farmer collaborations with tools, resources and structures for the future,” said Katherine Bessey, CDI’s coordinating director and food system specialist.
Of concern to farmers and food producers, fragility in the supply chain for farm inputs was another key finding. Farmers identified problems relating to the supply chain and their ability to successfully procure needed supplies and inputs, such as issues with availability, increased costs and market volatility. Instability around local farm suppliers, including long-standing relationships with local stores, bulk purchasing options and affordable prices, called into question the stability of farm business models for many. Supply chain issues and associated stress within Maine’s food system continue, and require support.
Access to culturally important food was also exposed as a weak point in the food supply chain as a result of the pandemic. Leaders from various underrepresented groups in Maine reported issues around access and affordability of fresh, local and culturally appropriate foods, with disruption in the supply of staple foods.
Consumers reported prioritizing local food during the pandemic and plan to continue doing so, ranking local meat, poultry, vegetables and dairy in the order of importance. “Consumers in Maine have established a strong support and interest in purchasing locally produced food, and both farmers and buyers indicated a need for direct-to-consumer market support going forward,” said Sarah Simon, farm access and viability director at MFT.
While the survey responses highlighted some key themes, much work is still needed to understand the full extent to which the pandemic has changed Maine’s food system for the long term. An example of this relates to consumer access to food. During the pandemic, farmers and food producers shifted quickly to offer online marketing of products as well as increased use of packaged and pre-bagged items. These enhanced safety measures were put into place in response to COVID, though it is too soon to know if farmers will maintain these options as understanding of virus transmission and consumer preferences evolves.
“It is important for us to take the data from this report and learn more about how, as service providers, we can be responsive to the shifts in our food system, particularly as it relates to the weaknesses identified in the supply chain and greater support needed to bolster those,” said Ryan Dennett, MOFGA’s farmer programs director.