Central Texas farmers find ways to survive and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, all the while bringing locals unprecedented access to local food.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we do absolutely everything, including the way we grow, distribute, and consume food.
You’ve probably read about the big-time agricultural outfits plowing under their crops and dumping gallons on gallons of milk. Although they face challenges of their own, smaller Central Texas farmers face a different reality and many have made successful pivots to survive and even thrive for the time being.
Pivot or perish
Shawn and Meredith Fagan, owners of Fagan Family Farms in Kyle, faced a dark 24 hours with a severe dearth of clients after Austin restaurants shut down. The couple has rehomed all of their produce for now, changing gears to supply wholesaler Farm to Table’s home deliveries and other food and meal delivery services, including Loconomy, but they estimate that the disappearance of he higher-paying restaurant clients still means a loss of around $1,000 a month.
"I saw it coming but I didn’t know when the restaurants were going to see it coming and actually start shutting down,” Shawn said, "So, for 24 to 48 hours, we didn’t have any clients and were really kind of freaking out. But I am really good at getting rid of produce. That’s my skill, and I was able to make a couple calls.”
Craig and Rhianna Miller own Mill King Creamery in McGregor, just outside of Waco. They too saw the pandemic coming and when the virus was still just in China started making plans to offer home delivery in the Waco area and expand sales in their on-site farm store.
Restaurants made up about 40 percent of Mill King’s sales in a typical month, but with that arm of the business amputated, instead the company has increased what it’s selling directly to consumers and to other home delivery services, including this one.
It has avoided the fate of big-time dairies, which are dealing with the falling price of milk despite consumers facing empty grocery shelves, but Mill King has faced rising costs of doing business. Craig and Rhianna brought on more employees so they can have two completely separate crews that don’t interact with each other. They also acquired trucks and drivers so they can deliver their own milk, and they’ve launched an ecommerce site for online sales. Costs are up and so is time in the office for Craig and Rhianna.
"I haven't put in less than 80 hours since Corona hit, and I guarantee you there were some 100-hour weeks,” Craig said. "My wife one week put in 110 hours in the office because we’re doing online sales and this and that and we have to build a computer program and we’re having to do this overnight. This is the reason why big companies couldn’t do it — how do they change a billion dollar company overnight?”
Small farms, big responsibility
Zach Hagan, director of operations at CoveMark, the Dallas-based private equity firm that partners with local lamb producer Capra Foods, reiterated that being a smaller outfit has provided some level of protection. Where big protein plants and slaughterhouses have suffered from coronavirus outbreaks, Capra and its ranchers have so far been spared.
"That’s the benefit of being local, quite frankly,” Hagan said. "We are just an odd-sized fish in a slightly smaller pond, which has protected us somewhat. When you look at some of the larger plants I think you're looking at taking shipments from around the nation, you’ve got a very high-volume workforce that is coming and going, and I think that makes you susceptible to more risk. Being a local outfit, we rely on about 100 different ranchers throughout Texas for the most part ... and we’ve really been fortunate that we’ve been able to minimize any contact that could jeopardize our ability to stay open.”
In fact, business is booming for Capra Foods. Typically lamb consumption peaks around Christmas and Easter with more of a lull the rest of the year, but with go-to proteins disappearing from grocery shelves, consumers are bringing home more lamb.
Also, points out Hagan, in the midst of this pandemic, people prioritize health and lamb provides omega-3 fatty acids and promotes gut-biome health, among other benefits, and Capra’s dorper lambs are 100 percent grass-fed, grown with no antibiotics and are farmed using sustainable regenerative farming.
To meet the demand, some of Capra’s farmers have agreed to sell their animals at a lower weight than is ideal for maximum profit.
"(The ranchers) make the most money the longer they hold onto them,” Hagan said, "but knowing the crunch that the country is in, a lot of them have stepped up and forgone what would be additional profit in a way to try and maintain supply for the people.”
To plan for the summer, Capra’s collective of 100-plus Texas ranchers are changing up their timelines, trying to amp up their production in a time when they might normally be hanging tight, waiting for the holiday season. Capra is also in the midst of developing an ecommerce platform so they can sell directly to consumers.
A time to be grateful
The life of a small-time farmer or rancher during a global pandemic is... complicated. The future is unpredictable in a business already very familiar with uncertainty.
"Basically what I’m telling you is the only healthy entity in the food supply chain are the grocery stores, and everything else is sitting on a very fine wire,” Craig Miller said.
And yet, in conversation with these farmers, a few bright spots emerged. For one, with restaurants requiring much less of the local produce farmed around our city, Austinites have more access than ever before to high-quality locally grown organic fruits and vegetables.
Fagan, who got into farming after a stint as a landscape designer in Durango, Colorado, said he picked this path because he was tired of "taking the super rich and making their yards look cool.” And yet, to make their farm profitable, over the six years of its existence, the Fagans have mostly done business with high-end restaurants in Austin.
"You know, I didn’t quit landscaping and pimping rich people’s yards so that I could just feed the ultra-wealthy, that wasn’t my original intention in getting into farming. I wanted to make a difference and help people out and feed them good food,” Fagan said. "But it turns out the margins are so narrow that that’s really hard to do. That’s hard to pull off, especially as a new farmer.”
So he’s grateful that his produce is now finding a home on the plates of Austinites of a variety of income levels. He’s also grateful that his farm is still making money — something many businesses, entrepreneurs, and professionals can’t say right now.
And as a whole, we’re learning to become a lot more grateful for our farmers and to think more about where our food comes from and what work had to be done to get it onto our plates. With any luck, that consciousness will remain long after the pandemic ends.
Robin Olsen, who heads up communications for CoveMark and Capra, articulated this sentiment quite eloquently:
"Feeding America is something (farmers and ranchers) been doing forever and we’ve been looking the other way for a long time,” she said. "I think it’s been a long time since we celebrated farmers and really focused on that as a nation. They are heroes too.”