With Restaurants Closing, How Will Farmers Be Impacted By COVID-19?

Mar 18, 2020

Earlier this week, health officials in 16 Milwaukee County municipalities, including the city, have ordered bars and restaurants to close to help slow the spread of COVID-19. That's the disease caused by the coronavirus.

>>Coronavirus: Restaurants Face Potential Loss Of Employees, Revenue Amid Shutdowns

While only restaurants can continue operations for carry-out and food delivery, it will be a difficult transition and anticipating how much food to make could be challenging. But what about the farmers who help supply Milwaukee-area restaurants through wholesale deliveries? How has COVID-19 impacted their outlook on the fast-approaching farming season?

Since many farmers have already started planting for the spring, they have to move forward in hopes that there will be a market to support the sales of the produce once it’s ready.

"We have to assume that there's going to be a season and that there's going to be people who are going to want food."

Most farmers have wholesale deliveries to restaurants as a higher part of their income stream, according to farming contributor Dave Kozlowski. His farm, Pinehold Gardens, does sell produce to some Milwaukee-area restaurants — and it makes up about 30% of its income.

"Right now, it's probably not a significant impact since the season hasn't really kicked off and what we would be selling would be things that are kept in storage — it will undoubtedly have a small impact," Kozlowski says. "The big effect will come down the road as field crops start to come in, and if restaurants are still closed, then it's gonna have an impact."

But farmers need to push ahead regardless. Kozlowski notes that most farmers in the upper Midwest have already bought 95% of their seeds, and the game plan for his farm is still to grow the plants, plant them and sell them.

"Farmers are like the biggest gamblers because ... we have to assume that there's going to be a season and that there's going to be people who are going to want food," says Kozlowski.

The first crops are seeded this time of year at Pinehold Gardens, like these onions. When they get a little bigger, they are then moved to the greenhouse to grow even more before finally being planted into the field.
Credit Pinehold Gardens

"The question is not only the COVID-19 problem but the weather as well are big, big, big variables right now in this business for all the farmers," he says.

Kozlowski admits they can't anticipate what impacts the coronavirus may have on farming, but there is growing uncertainty in how produce will be transported cross country or internationally to grocery stores.

"Are they going to be leaning more on regional/local growers? That could be some bright side to the restaurants closing," Kozlowski notes. "But will the grocery stores be able to take that and move that stuff now is a big open question. So, maybe that wholesale market, at least in the interim, is not the way to go — and luckily most of us have not dropped our [Community Supported Agriculture] programs."

A boost in CSA programs could be another unintended positive of the coronavirus, Kozlowski says. "[Customers won't have] to really go anywhere to get the produce. And definitely home delivery is raising a lot of interest among some of us [farmers]," he notes.

Although much of the population has moved to working from home, Kozlowski says to remember that it's still important to eat well.

"Eating a good nutritional diet is one step toward protecting yourself from diseases like this — whether it's COVID-19, the flu, or the cold," he says. "So people need to get reacquainted with their kitchen."