Isolation. That’s the emotion of this pandemic period we’re all living through.
We farmers live with isolation. We work in open spaces, much of the labor is done individually and alone. Today, I have found myself worrying about the impact of the coronavirus on this livelihood I’ve chosen for myself and my family as my children partner with us on our farm. Our future is now measured by generations on this land: What lies ahead beyond our trees and vines?
So, I asked a few of my colleagues to share their insights. A group of friends—wise movers and shakers in the food world—were willing to express their thoughts directly, helping me clarify how a family farm can belong in a world altered by a pandemic.
When I asked him about the future of food, chef and founder of World Central Kitchen José Andrés wrote me: “I would hope that the people of America no longer take their food, or those who prepare it, for granted.”
I took great comfort when he added, “Our current situation is making each of us think hard about how we eat. I’m certain there will be a new respect for the ones who feed America.”
Indeed, we can only shelter in place if we can eat while we’re there.
“Procuring food is (as it has been for most people for most of history) one of the biggest challenges of the day, with the result that whatever items you manage to secure feel precious,” Michael Pollan, journalist and author of Food Rules, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and other books about the food system, wrote in a recent email. “So good food, which we Americans have come to devalue, to take for granted, has been restored by the virus to its true value.”
Andrés and Pollan are right. The coronavirus exposes a simple fact that we farmers have long known about food: we are not alone. Our food chains bond and connect people to those who grow, distribute, prepare, deliver food. Now, those chains have been threatened by major disruptions. Daily, Americans are forced to ask: Where does my food come from? The pandemic demands the public to think systemically: We all survive because of a food network.
I began to feel better, not so isolated. My emotions calm with the sage voices of others: I was reminded that I’m part of a larger team of partners. When I reached out to Alice Waters, chef and founder of Chez Panisse and The Edible Schoolyard Project, she wrote: “The present crisis is reminding us that food security depends on a local food system. When we grow food regeneratively and organically, we not only produce deeply nutritious food, we also mitigate climate change. What a hopeful and delicious vision for the future.”
Farmers grow public food, our work belongs in the public sphere. A nation’s large and complicated food network is based on person-to-person exchanges. The more the people learn about food, the more they realize it’s all personal: We all work to fill a human’s body and soul with life.
The systemic depersonalization of food has made it a commodity predominantly shaped by money, supply, and demand. Coronavirus compels us to look at the world differently—now, we see neighbors, families, and people who affect our health and well-being. At the same time, food rises to the top of our human needs. We can shelter in place only if we have food.
Our small farm resides in an intricate web of relationships. Food is part of a high-touch network. From farm to truck to shipper, many hands touch our food. Distribution systems of brokers, direct sales, markets, and restaurants all are parts of a necessarily complex structure that feeds us.
Now, part of my daily morning farm meetings include deep exchanges about where our small farm fits in a larger food conversation. Our daughter, Nikiko Masumoto, who farms alongside me, brings a new calling and responsibility: “The COVID-19 crisis both causes and exposes fault-lines in our food system. Hunger was already a problem, access to healthy nourishing food is mitigated by poverty and structural racism. Some are experiencing the feeling of scarcity and insecurity for the first time.”
On our farm, we work at a literal “grass roots” level and know well that the hidden hands that feed us belong to farmworkers. Their plight is exacerbated by a cheap food system the industry has created. The driving economic force had been price—keep expenses low, underpay workers, limit their access to health care, provide few benefits—all for the cause of providing the public with inexpensive food. Faced with growing economic pressures and a tightening labor supply due to closed borders, many farmers are turning to science and mechanization to solve problems—as if a meal will then magically appear on our tables with the right formula.
Some farmers’ markets have seen reduced numbers because people fear they’re unsafe. Groceries are pulled in new directions with uneven demand and long lines. Restaurants are trying to pivot to take out and delivery structures. But typically, small operators aren’t well-equipped to weather crises. Many will not reopen and fall victim to this food storm we’re witnessing.
There are no quick fixes despite what some leaders proclaim. We’re rethinking how and what we eat.
Our farm’s produce broker, Cindy Richter of Fruit World, has seen a rapid shift. “The real estate inside stores is reorganizing before us as they adjust to new demands,” she said. “People are thinking more about food, planning even more, and using personal-shopping delivery systems. But if others are buying food for people, does that eliminate impulse buying? What’s not on the shopping list matters more than ever.”
I do not farm by myself—the farm to fork metaphor oversimplifies the vital role people in the middle play. Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill, Stone Barns founder, and author, stresses this fact, too. “We ought to recognize (read: invest in and celebrate) that our food movement needs to become a food system,” he said. “To get there, farm-to-table would benefit from a few more middlemen. Not just chefs and eaters, but millers, maltsters, butchers, processors, preservers, fermenters, and distributors.”
Many people have also begun growing their own food. “Sheltering at home leads to the planting of millions of victory gardens … [more are choosing] to grow our own food, cook it ourselves, and return to the family table,” Waters told me. “If our schools adopted this vision and supported local, regenerative, organic agriculture, our children would grow up learning the values of stewardship, nourishment, and community.”
Much of agribusiness treats growing food as if it’s no different than making widgets—it’s about production and economics. But I sense a shift occurring. Farming has been rightfully deemed essential, and small producers are now positioned to make a difference, not with monetary exchange, but with the fruits of our labor.
“The lesson we ought to be learning from the pandemic is awe. Without [awe], we can treat the web of life as callously as we like, destroying habitat, creating crushes of monocultured plants and animals, tended by the most poorly treated humans on the planet,” Raj Patel, an economist and author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing, advised me.
José Andrés stressed the importance of making visible everyone in the food chain: “Not just in our restaurants but in also in our schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and beyond.”
The social connections around food are more evident: People are forced to reinvent the meaning of food. When restaurants and bars close, we are now compelled to eat at home and experience a meal in different ways. Home cooking has taken on new life, someone else is no longer preparing all our food.
Jessica B. Harris, cookbook author and food historian, told me: “I think that we will have learned some important lessons about the commensality of the table and of the cardinal importance that coming together over food plays in our lives, whether it’s at home in the dining room or kitchen, or in a white tablecloth restaurant or burger joint, or even hunkered down on a bar stool.”
Michael Pollan agrees. “A revival of home cooking is underway. The shared meal is one of the few pleasures left to us,” he said. His voice echoes as I walk through our orchards, thinking about our summer harvest of organic peaches, nectarines, apricots, and raisins. I find comfort hoping our produce will join the tables of many.
Food has returned to its original communal roots. It’s a new yet old cultural ritual of the common gathering—from how we acquire food to who and how it’s cooked and to how and where we partake it. But we farmers live with a pessimism, worrying about the weather, prices, pests and now a jolting change.
I fret about the restaurants we sell to and how they can survive the pandemic. A new paradigm of food may emerge, a new respect for those who provide meals for all of us. Behind every restaurant stands a band of not only chefs and staff, but also a circle of farmers and shippers and we too will change and pivot. Yet the economic fallout of today will crush plans.
As Pollan sees it, after the pandemic we may “hurry back to the status quo.” This new heightened awareness and appreciation of the food chain may be tossed aside, abandoned alongside gardens and new cooking projects. We may quickly forget about the plights of farmworkers and restaurant laborers.
“I worry about the lasting effects of the crisis on farmers and the supply chains and on the restaurants,” added Pollan. “It seems likely that more of the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants will go under than the big chains, and that the landscape left in its wake will be more monotonous and homogenized.”
But he hopes “that the satisfaction of forming what for many will be a very new relationship with food will be its own reward, and the garden plots and home-cooked meals will endure much longer than the virus.”
Barber points to an expression in the Jewish tradition, tikkun olam. “It refers to the idea of mending a shattered world, making it whole,” he said. He hopes more people will emerge from this period with that approach in mind.
Soon, I hope we transition from coping to hoping. It took an invisible virus to make farmers and food visible again.
“If we come out of this crisis with an abiding appreciation for the hands that feed us, and a newfound respect for the diversity of life, we’ll have learned well,” added Patel with a reassuring voice.
I take refuge in these words from my colleagues. Perhaps farmers are not as isolated as we think. We have an opportunity to remedy inequities and generate incremental advancements in the food chain we are bound by. A transformation may be underway as we shelter in place and rethink the foods we eat.
“I think/hope/pray that we have learned to be grateful … grateful for the farmers, for the vendors, for those who cook, and for those who serve it and celebrate them, pay them well, and understand the important and essential role that they play in our lives,” Jessica B. Harris kindly shared.
Barber also added that “a thriving food system means an infrastructure strong enough to support all these vital food actors, to take a shattered world and patch it back together in the long run. And the long run starts now.”
Today, death walks with us and jolts the world of food. Grocery store shelves have emptied as a public frets and agonizes about their next meal. The coronavirus compels us to pay attention to the the social network of food, a system that’s based on commerce and relationships. Yet out of this chaos, farmers are claiming a new sense of belonging, the commodification of food has momentarily shifted.
On our small farm, we must constantly adapt to an unpredictable nature. And as I grow into an old farmer, I often ask how many harvests do I have left to make changes? My answer: Next year begins now.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Fresno Bee.