As outbreaks of COVID-19 continue to spread across the Chippewa Valley, local farmers, co-op managers, small producers, and growers continue to see the global food system as broken — though they affirm we have the power to change it. It’s all in our hands.
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“Where are we, and why are we here?” Nik Novak, the storekeeper and meat buyer at Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire pondered — completely at ease at Deutsch Family Farm in Osseo, Wisconsin. “In a sense, we are where we’ve always been… We’re trying to provide the best quality food to all of our people, our workers, our customers, and our farmers. And we’ve built lots of long-standing relationships over these years, and all of that is being tested right now by our new reality, the ‘COVID commotion,’ as we like to call it."
Novak continued, “And it’s putting pressure on global systems, which is putting pressure on regional systems, and that’s putting pressure on local systems, and that’s where we come in: When everything starts to break down, you still have the people — the relationships — in your neighborhoods, in your communities.”
Novak is one of hundreds — thousands — of Wisconsin farmers, co-op managers, small producers, and growers who have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As disease spreads, rickety fluctuation in food supply and demand stresses the rural food system. Panicked customers seek short-term solutions to long-term issues. Decreased foot traffic at local markets forces market vendors to scramble for other options. Long-standing agricultural monopolies continue to threaten the local food system.
This is one story of how, in many ways, the food system has been broken for a long time, but the COVID-19 outbreak may be the end for Wisconsin’s mom-and-pop farms — or the opportunity to pivot and allow small-town farmers to do what they do best: grow. It's a choice that is all in the hands of our community right here in the Chippewa Valley.
In late September, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin co-sponsored the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive (RESTAURANT) Act, which would create a $120 billion revitalization fund to help the restaurant industry overcome long-term financial challenges resulting from the pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, the restaurant industry has lost more revenue and jobs than any other industry, according to the bill. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the restaurant industry currently faces an unemployment rate of 21%, with 6.1 million people currently unemployed. The Chippewa Valley is no different.
“We’re no longer in emergency mode,” said Kent Buell, Food and Beverage Director for Pablo Group, which manages popular Eau Claire restaurants such as The Informalist, The Fire House, Racy D’Lenes Coffee Lounge, The Nucleus, and Eau Claire Downtown Coffee (ECDC). “This is what we’ve had to deal with.”
According to Buell, the first question restaurant teams like Pablo Group had to consider was the safety of their teams. Next, was how to capture business safely — a challenging question as small restaurants limit social distancing capability and colder weather limit potential for outdoor dining. But Buell wasn’t able to speak about the impact of the pandemic on restaurants without touching on the impact COVID-19 has had on every other aspect of the food system in the Chippewa Valley — the systems are so intertwined that the impact on one causes a domino effect on the others.
When restaurants closed in early March, many local farmers had no place to directly sell their food, Buell said. And, with meat butchers seeing an influx of appointments due to increased demand for meat, many local farmers weren’t able to get their animals processed, resulting in rotting food and animals they could no longer use for profitable meat. Buell said he knew one local farmer who worked with about 125 farms and, as a result of the pandemic, now works with fewer than four.
The food waste — despite rates of food insecurity rising in the U.S. — weighs heavily on Buell’s mind.
“It’s about small, daily choices … In terms of the food chain, we have almost everything we need locally.”
It’s one of the many reasons he supports local — and continues to value supporting local during a pandemic.
“It’s about (being) intentional, and moving a little bit away from convenience,” he said. “It’s about small, daily choices… In terms of the food chain, we have almost everything we need locally. It’s learning to eat from the Valley.” One program that supports this is the Pablo Food Hub, which Pablo Group launched after seeing a need for local food in the community.
And, it’s about more than just supporting locally. It’s about being a good neighbor, according to Rita Dorsey, general manager of The Lismore. Many employees in the restaurant industry are faced with the danger of going to work every day and getting sick or not being able to pay rent or afford groceries, she said, which is one of the many reasons she and her team place such value on safety in The Lismore.
“It’s such a hard position for them to be (in),” she said. Dorsey said many people don’t respect mask policies and berate employees — many of which make only slightly more than minimum wage.
Both Buell and Dorsey see the pandemic as ripping a bandaid off an already-delicate system that was on the brink of collapse. But, valuing neighbors and local food may be the solution to solving the issues that are eminent in the rural food system — and it’s an obvious solution, Buell said. Fresh, local foods taste better and the cost is almost the same as the big box stores’ prices, he said. If local communities make small substitutions — starting with little things like honey from local beekeepers and eggs from local farmers, eventually it will add up in a big way.
“I see us on the cusp of some amazing things to come,” Buell said.
Local food co-ops have seen a surge in demand and foot traffic since March, reaffirming what many managers know to be true: supporting local is the best way to collectively endure crises.
The first two months after the pandemic hit northwestern Wisconsin, meat sales increased at Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire by 77%, according to Novak, the storekeeper. Total store sales initially surged by 38%, and are now consistently 20 to 25% higher than what they normally would be.
The Menomonie Market Food Co-Op also noticed a skyrocketing demand for produce, frozen meats, and frozen foods, which may be due to more people cooking from home as a result of restaurant closures. Local dairy farmers took a sharp hit, according to the co-op, as many were forced to dump their excess milk.
It’s a trend the National Farmers Union affirms with the startling statistic:
Wisconsin has lost 2.5 dairy farms each day over the last year — losing 773 dairy heards as of 2019 — and thus our retail dollars are increasingly going to large corporations rather than family farms.
According to the Midwest Farm Report, at the peak of the pandemic:
About 110 Wisconsin farms were forced to dump milk – totalling more than 600,000 gallons – as a result of oversupply.
The oversupply, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was largely because of restaurant closures:
More than half of Wisconsin’s milk goes into food service, and those types of sales have dropped 70% amid the pandemic.Yet farmers still pay the price.
Co-ops help mitigate that damage. Smaller producers have a hard time getting the product on the shelf at bigger stores, so the co-op acts as a “year-round farmer’s market,” said Marketing Manager Kendall Williams. Co-ops serve as a place to sell these goods and connect consumers with the folks raising and growing their food.
According to National Farmers Union data, 14.6 cents out of every retail food dollar goes to the farmer. Thirty years ago, a farmer received 37 cents out of every retail food dollar.
At Just Local Food Cooperative, the farmer receives two-thirds of a dollar, and the co-op retains the leftover funds to pay its employees and operating costs, which keeps money in the community.
Co-ops also have the beneficial “multiplier effect” according to Becca Schoenborn, the outreach and education coordinator at the Menomonie Market Food Co-Op: For every $1,000 spent at a local co-op, $1,600 is generated in the local economy. “We are able to pay the people who live here,” she said.
The Menomonie Market Food Co-Op was recently awarded a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant, which helped it increase sales of local food and increase direct farm income.
The co-op uses those funds in three ways: one, to buy ingredients for the deli from the farmers market; two, to increase the presence of Sno Pac foods – a local farm and processor of frozen fruit and vegetables; and three, to buy leftover goods for value-added items such as pestos, chicken stock, and applesauce.
“This gives us an extra level of commitment to our local farmers,” Schoenborn said. “So, right now is a hard time to be a farmer because they are losing a lot of their market due to restaurants closing or other businesses having less demand. So we are able to provide them with an income in this time and also help promote our local food system.”
In January 2020, the unemployment rate in the Eau Claire metropolitan area was 4.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In April, it reached a startling 12.3%.
Such massive job loss has had a conspicuous impact on the Chippewa Valley food system, as many Chippewa Valley families find themselves in tougher financial situations — facing food insecurities they may never have faced before. When combined with the need for community-provided meals that existed pre-pandemic, the result is a demand that far exceeds supply — and local food pantries scramble to fill that need with decreased staff size and types of donations that they may never have handled before.
When the pandemic hit in March, several Chippewa Valley restaurants — including Cowboy Jack’s, Texas Roadhouse, The Edge, Shanghai Bistro, and others — donated leftover frozen goods to Feed My People Food Bank when local restaurants shuttered their doors as a result of COVID-19.
The Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls school districts, as well as UW-Eau Claire, donated collectively over 8,000 pounds of food, according to Susie Haugley, communications specialist at Feed My People. Fifty seven percent more food was able to be held on site as compared to last year. “That’s a significant amount,” Haugley said. Though the kindhearted donations meant families didn’t go hungry, it also meant restaurants and local eateries took a significant profit hit.
The Feed My People Food Bank was also the recipient of the USDA Farmers to Family program, whereby they have received more than 10,000 boxes of meat and dairy products since March — products they don’t ordinarily have on hand. Many of the products come directly from local or regional producers, Haughley said.
“We want to get ahead of demand,” she said, “so that as the demand increases, we’ve done enough things ahead of time.”
As some families experience food insecurity, others panic at the lack of produce and goods on national store shelves, thereby turning to local farms for a solution through their community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, which allow farmers to sell directly to consumers, eliminating a good portion of food waste and bypassing the farmers market — an advantage during the pandemic, farmers say.
Square Roots Farm in Fall Creek — a diversified vegetable farm specializing in crops without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides — recently launched an online marketplace where people can shop online for produce, pay for it, and then pick up their goods at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market as a way to decrease person-to-person interactions.
Square Roots’ CSA program has seen a boom from 40 up to 70 shares since the pandemic hit, according to owner Jake Lau.
Similar to Square Roots Farm, Sunbow Farm — a fruit and vegetable CSA farm located just outside Eau Claire, which is dedicated to sustainable farming practices — has experienced a rise in demand for CSA shares.
“I am probably not even close to meeting demand,” said Kristina Beuning, owner of Sunbow Farm. “It’s been absolute insanity.”
The number of shareholders in Sunbow’s CSA program has risen from 75 to 125 families, with a waiting list of about 50 people. “People have really begun to value local food,” she said.
In particular, there has been a skyrocket in demand for local meat products — perhaps as a result of severe shortages in big-box grocery stores. Together Farms in Mondovi, which hosts weekly Burger Nights on the farm, where locals can enjoy fresh burgers and explore the farm in a relaxing environment, is one such farm.
Stephanie Schneider, owner of Together Farms, said she has experienced an increase in demand and a backlog of butchering appointments since March. Luckily, Together Farms implemented measures to fill up demand even before the pandemic hit — which meant making lots of animal babies this year.
Even with that increase in the number of animals that go into making your next juicy burger or sizzlin’ bacon, the backlog of butchering appointments mean animals have to go in too early (when they may not be the optimal size) or too late (when they have excess fat that makes their meat less desirable).
Autumn is the perfect time to support a CSA program, as Beuning recommends folks join in November or December. Since farms incur between 50-70% of their costs before the season starts, they need the support earlier in the growing season to cover the costs of seed and such. If you start looking to support CSAs in March or April, you’re likely too late, and you’ll be waitlisted.
The people who have been perhaps hit the hardest amid the pandemic are small producers — particularly first-generation farmers like Jim and Alison Deutsch of Deutsch Family Farm in Osseo, who have been attending the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market for over a decade and have been farmers for only 14 years.
All year long, you can find the Deutsch family raising pigs and dairy cows and selling their products within a 60-mile radius of their farm — including to restaurants, co-ops, and grocery stores. “We worry about every day paying the bills and making it,” Alison Deutsch said.
For first-generation farmers, there’s no financial cushion, so every dollar makes a difference between chugging on another day or calling it quits. In mid-March, because school transitioned online, Jim Deutsch took a part-time job downtown since their children could help more with chores at home. There’s a sense of defeat, Alison Deutsch said, that comes with taking on a second job.
She estimates she and her husband each work about 100 hours per week at the farm. “So to ask our kids to step up and help more than they normally do so he can work part time off the farm is hard,” she said. “They’re more than happy to do it but, as a parent, that’s been hard.”
According to Deutsch, some of the vendors at the market are seeing a 50-70% decline in sales — herself included — despite the fact that her farm reached a growth point this year; in spring of 2021, they will have more pigs ready for slaughter than ever before.
And that’s one of their many problems. As demand for — and panic buying of — meat increased in early March, the few butchers across the region became overwhelmed with appointments for butchering.
Kyle Burt — of Burt’s Meats in Eyota, Minnesota, the butcher that the Deutsch Family uses for their farm — has been in the butchering business since he was knee-high. Right at the beginning of March, the demand for meat went haywire, so many people went to local farmers hoping to get their hands on meat products. “They didn’t even care what the prices were,” said Jane Rusert, an employee at Burt’s Meats.
Burt’s Meats is currently booked out through May of next year, with only a small break this past summer. In normal years, they only book out one to three months in advance.
Burt starts his day promptly at 4am, and then spends his 12-16 hour days on his feet. “You come home and you just want to do nothing,” he said. With a staff of just eight, it requires hard work and persistence to keep things running smoothly.
Many of the larger meat processing plants were shut down due to rising COVID numbers, so farmers were faced with losing money as animals quickly became too fatty for profitable meat. They had no choice but to euthanize them, wasting valuable meat. “It’s going to hurt the economy because there’s a lot of animals that they put down that they couldn’t get processed,” Burt said.
The butchering business has been in severe decline for years as a result of the hard work that next generations aren’t interested in taking on, according to Deutsch. The hours are long (often 12 hours or more), and federal regulations change monthly, with more regulations piling on top that can be challenging to keep up with.
“To ask our kids to step up and help more than they normally do, so [Dad] can work part-time off the farm, is hard.”
Deutsch Family Farm
“There’s almost never a generation to take over when someone retires,” Deutsch said. “The young folks don’t want to do that kind of hard work.” In Trempealeau County, the number of locally owned meat processors has dropped from six to two between 2000 and 2020. What does that mean for the next generation of farmers?
“It’s not good,” she admitted grimly. The lack of butchers keeps local farmers more reliant on monopolies that own large packing plants, making it harder and harder for local livestock businesses to be viable in the future.
Luckily for the Deutsch family, they’ve been booked every other week for butchering appointments. It’s good fortune because for other farms, they have to wait a year to have their animals butchered.
“If they didn’t have us scheduled in every other week, we would have to quit,” Alison Deutsch said. “Pigs don’t stop growing.”
Dia Vang and Boon Mee Xiong have been a part of the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market for more than 25 years and have been witness to the many changes and developments at the market. But nothing could prepare this family — like so many others in the area — for what would hit them in the spring of 2020.
Vang, 65, began her journey at the market when she first arrived in the U.S. from Thailand, according to daughter Sara Xiong. She is a full-time employee at McMillan Electric Company in Woodville, Wisconsin, and every year tends to a five-acre garden of fruits, vegetables, and flowers during her spare time.
According to Xiong, many Hmong farmers garden and bring their goods to the market because it’s their passion, their hobby; it provides fresh and local products to the community; and it provides a sole or supplemental source of income to Hmong families. It’s an exhausting job, she said, but it’s something in which many Hmong people find passion.
“Many Hmong vendors’ gardening expertise comes from their roots and where they came from,” Xiong said. “Back in Laos or Thailand, they did this as a living for a source of food. They learned how to grow fruits and vegetables and tend to the gardens to put food on the table.”
While some families, like Xiong’s, work full-time and tend to the gardens during their spare time, other Hmong families rely on their garden and goods to provide income for their family year-round. At the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market, about 50% of the vendors identify as Hmong, according to the market’s director and Xiong’s estimates.
“Hmong families don’t know what to expect during this time,” Xiong said. “With all the products they’ve produced, they rely on providing them at the markets for extra income. If markets are not open or (there’s) no support from the community, what will they do with their produce?”
Furthermore, many of the grants available to local farmers exclude smaller operations, which prohibits many Hmong farmers from applying, according to Xiong. One such example is the Wisconsin Farm Support Program, which provides about $50 million in direct payments to Wisconsin farmers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Many groups — including the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, and others — represented farmers in discussions with Gov. Tony Evers’ office in terms of the application requirements to receive funding.
However, there were no organizations exclusively representing Hmong farmers. Xiong feels the exclusionary nature of the grants force Hmong farmers to feel there’s no hope.
“We feel that we put all our effort in providing fresh produce to the community yet come to realize there’s no accessibility to grants for us,” Xiong said.
Despite that, Xiong said they still remain as tied to their community as ever before, though they worry about whether the community will show that same support back.
“We don’t know what to expect as regulations can change during these times,” Xiong said. “(Our) biggest fears and anxieties are that we don’t know what to expect for the future. We would love to continue and support our local community with our products, but will the demand still be there? Will the community continue to show support? What does the future hold for the farmers market and vendors like us?”
At the center of the local food system in Eau Claire is the downtown farmers market, a critical place for vendors to make anywhere from half to all of their income. But it’s more than an economic hotspot, according to manager Deidra Barrickman.
“The main reason people probably come are for the fresh fruits (and) vegetables, for those products,” she said. “But I think the second reason is really for socializing. And it seems like it’s become kind of like an event, almost, every Saturday — something regular that a lot of people do.”
In an average year, around 5,000 people stop by the farmers market on a typical mid-season Saturday, according to Barrickman. And many of the vendors are of Hmong heritage, who don’t know a life outside of growing.
This is what made this year particularly hard: Not only did the pandemic eliminate the social capacity of the market but it also made communication challenging for those with language barriers. And, it made sales harder for those who already struggle to connect with those in the community who don’t have a desire to shop for locally produced food.
This is especially true for small producers like Deutsch, who rely on the market to sell their meat. ““The vendors are like family,” she said. “That’s where we buy all our food that we don’t raise. … We buy everything that we can from local people because it’s what we do, and it’s important. People are what matter.”
Now in their 13th year selling at the downtown farmers market, Deutsch confirmed that the market is the biggest tool that local farmers have to connect with their community. Because the social impact of the market has been eliminated, conversations haven’t been as meaningful, and fewer people are stopping by. Yet every Saturday you could still find Deutsch and her children with their goods at the market.
“A lot of these farmers rely on farmers markets and restaurant sales to make a lot of their income,” said Schoenborn of the Menomonie Market Food Co-Op. “So we saw a huge number of farmers immediately lose half of their income overnight because they didn’t have the sales from restaurants. And that is completely unexpected for local farms.”
Nationally, the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the long-standing problems within the global food system. “There’s a lot of conversations happening about the food system breaking or being broken,” Schoenborn of the Menomonie Market Food Co-Op said.
“I personally wouldn’t say that the food system is breaking now. I think it has been broken for a long time, and this pandemic is forcing us all to see that and see the issues that a large-scale food system has as far as supply and demand and being able to keep up with something like this happening. People are starting to see the ugly side of the food system that we maybe don’t want to see normally.”
National chain stores, such as Walmart and Target, saw meat shortages amid the pandemic and vast, empty store shelves. And many large-scale meat and food processing plants were shut down across the country during the pandemic as a result of rising coronavirus cases, which exacerbated the shortages.
“The beauty of the local food system is that it’s always been there, and it will always be there,” Novak of Just Local Food Cooperative said. “When a global system starts to falter — when it collapses — what you have are local people. … Suddenly, you have a system that was always meant to be supported and now it’s the only one that exists.” The answer in solving the food shortages, the rural food systems under stress as a result of the pandemic, and the national system buckling under demand it can’t supply, is in supporting locally, Novak said.
By supporting locally — and only locally — we can eliminate national monopolies that threaten mom-and-pop farms while ensuring high-quality meat at competitive prices. And, supporting locally means supporting friends and neighbors rather than national and global corporations.
“Our farmers are the basic part of our community, our world, because we all depend on food, and they’re the people that are producing it,” said Barrickman, the farmers market manager. “And if we can have them stay in business, do what they’re doing best, and bring us great, fresh, local food, then that seems like the best we can have. It really does. It seems like the way we should be doing things — not depending on everything outside of our community — that we can depend on our local farmers.”