Small farms offer a healthy food supply

Madison Reed places bowls of tomatoes out at the Reeds Groves stand at the newly reopened Brownwood Farmers Market. Many vendors are taking precautionary measures to keep themselves and customers safe.

Some family farms aren’t letting people in other than the families who run them. It’s one way the tri-county’s farms and agribusinesses are guarding their supply of locally grown and raised food so they can feed people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases of COVID-19 increased in recent days in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis cited the increase of outbreaks involving farmworkers. Outside of Florida, outbreaks that occurred at meatpacking plants were responsible for recent beef shortages and price spikes. But in the tri-county area, small farmers who grow fruits and vegetables and raise animals for meat and eggs are employing safeguards to protect themselves and their customers, while producing a safe supply of food to feed people through a pandemic.

Socially distanced farming

For some, the safest way to keep the harvest safe is to keep the harvest away from the customers.

Wholesome Conversions Farm in Weirsdale, where Scott and Melanie Moore raise chickens for meat and eggs, offer on-site order pickups from customers during a 2 to 5 p.m. block on Sundays.

Customers pick up their food from an area isolated from where the chickens are, Scott said.

Farms like the Moores’, where human interaction is minimal and limited to only the family, may contrast with larger farms that involve more workers.

For example, the Alachua County Health Department acknowledged COVID-19 spikes in mid-June involving farmworkers.

On June 16, a day when Florida confirmed 3,126 new COVID-19 cases and 12.39% of tests came up positive, DeSantis attributed farmworkers as a contributor of the increase. He later pointed to younger individuals failing to socially distance as a factor as well.

But Franco Ripple, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said in a statement that same day that agriculture was not a primary driver of COVID-19 in Florida.

“There is evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in areas where farms are located, but the vast majority of farmworkers left agricultural communities several weeks ago, as harvests have ended,” he said.

The Florida Department of Health did not provide the agriculture department with any specific concerns regarding COVID-19 and agriculture, Ripple said. He added that cases also were rising in non-agricultural counties.

Scott, the chicken farmer, acknowledged many of America’s large meatpacking operations had to shut down because of employees having the virus.

Meat prices increased nationwide as a result. For example, ground beef went up from an average price of $3.88 per pound in March to $4.46 per pound in May, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Small, family-run livestock farms like the Moores’ work to fill the void for customers.

“Our family is COVID-19 free and we are still going strong, for which we praise the Lord,” Scott said.

Keeping clean using common sense

For many farmers, it’s all about common-sense measures such as frequent sanitizing and wearing masks when interacting with the public, as they do for on-site order pickups or while selling their products at the newly reopened Brownwood Farmers Market.

Coleman farmer April Keys wore a mask and gloves during a recent Saturday market. Keys, with help from six family members, grows onions, peppers, tomatoes, carrots and eggplant on their farms and also raise chickens for eggs.

All of her food must be packed fresh and sold within two days, she said.

Keys also sanitizes everything, from the plastic bags used to hold customers’ food purchases, to the egg cartons used to hold her farm-fresh eggs, and the cash she receives for the purchases.

At the Keys’ farm — part of Coleman for 25 years — she sanitizes using a disinfectant spray and sunlight. She doesn’t use wet hand sanitizer on the egg cartons because it corrodes the material used to make them.

“Everyone has to be a little cleaner or healthier,” Keys said.

Sanitizer is more common, even in open-air areas where the spread of disease is less likely than in confined spaces.

At Bountiful Farms in Okahumpka, co-owner Jessica Gentry is sanitizing the open-air retail market area more often than usual. A farm-to-table restaurant on the grounds is closed for the season.

“We’ve always cleaned, but never this much,” she said. “You never had to.”

Crops grown at Bountiful Farms go through a three-part rinse that involves a mix of apple cider vinegar and water that removes germs and bugs.

To prevent people from touching more than only what they buy, Gentry has baskets filled with produce for sale, which can be carried by a handle.

Because Bountiful Farms’ retail operation is open air, the heavy use of sanitizing on the grounds may seem excessive. But Gentry feels an obligation to keep her customers safe.

“With this going on, we want to be hosts,” she said. “I think it’s my duty as a business owner to follow the rules for our guests.”

New protective measures

Locally, farmers are doing what they can to COVID-proof their agribusinesses.

At Back Road Berries in Oxford, owner Mary Beth Locke now rings up berry pickers’ purchases behind a plexiglass shield.

Baskets for picking are sanitized with a bleach and soap solution after every use. A plastic bag goes over every basket to add another layer of cleanliness for the berries that Locke’s customers pick.

“In the morning before we (open), I’d go and start cleaning everything,” she said. “We clean during the picking time and every bucket gets wiped down and sanitized before it goes back out.”

Right now, Back Road Berries is nearing the end of its blackberry season. During its peak, as well as the blueberry season in the spring, Locke also offered pre-picked berries for customers who didn’t feel comfortable picking their own berries because of COVID-19 fears.

The start of the blueberry season coincided with DeSantis instituting a stay-at-home order for Florida. At that time, groups of 10 or more people were discouraged under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

So to follow the guidelines and keep herself, her customers and her blueberries safe, Locke only allowed picking by appointment.

“We limited the amount of people that could be at the field at one time,” she said. “It went good for us. We were fortunate.”

Like restaurants, at least one tri-county agribusiness also tried curbside pickup.

When the Brownwood Farmers Market temporarily closed in March amid COVID-19 fears, Lake Panasoffkee beekeeper Scott Irving didn’t want to stop his outreach to customers.

So he began offering curbside pickup of bottles of his wildflower honey every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from his Leesburg bottling plant.

Even with the market’s return, he’s still offering this service.

But Irving turned his honey to gold on the market’s first weekend back in business.

“We set a record for the biggest day we ever had,” he said. “And that accounts for the Strawberry Festival (and) Halloween. People were glad we were back.”

Raising bees for honey doesn’t involve much human interaction, Irving said.

He only has help from two other people with his beekeeping. His granddaughter used to help with bottling honey, but he now does it on his own; she recently stepped away from bottling after giving birth to his great-grandchild.

And the job of beekeeping always involves personal protection because of the risk of getting stung.

When Irving wears a full bee suit, you’ll see him with a face covering and gloves.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.