by Katie Funk and Jeff Hake, Funks Grove Heritage Fruits and Grains
We were supposed to present at a workshop last week, hosted by The Land Connection and led by Farm Commons. At the root of this workshop was risk management: forecasting and evaluating risks and then taking steps to minimize their impact. The topics we planned to cover were wide ranging—think insurance, land leases, business structure, employment—but they mostly involved putting measures in place now that will help prevent the worst from happening in a time of unforeseen crisis in the future. We were there to help our fellow farmers look at their unique situations, see what risks they were taking (whether they realized it or not), and decide, based on how much risk they were willing to accept, what actions they could take and how. In our training with Farm Commons to prepare for the workshop, they guided us through these same steps with our farm, and we now have a list of actions for us to take. But to be honest, we weren’t in a big hurry. These were all things that needed to get done, but they could be addressed over the coming months as we continued to grow our farm business. However, with the postponement of the workshop, and woven as it is into a blanket of delays and cancelations across calendars in every state and nation, the message is clear: that crisis situation is not somewhere in the future; it is now. We are all living in a moment of profound and immediate need of risk management.
With this acute realization of the real and dramatic effects our actions or inactions, decisions, and behaviors have on the people around us, all of us have been called quite suddenly to evaluate the minute details of the way we live our personal and working lives: where we go, what we touch, who we see, etc. Just about everything we do involves some sort of real risk.
In our particular situation, it felt at first we might not be that directly affected by the COVID-19 crisis. We both already work off-farm from home—Katie as a full-time freelance editor and Jeff as a part-time marketing consultant for a couple of agricultural companies—and our farm crew comprises only the two of us and Jonny (Katie’s brother and the third farm partner), with occasional help from Katie’s family. So, the call for physical distancing didn’t really seem like it would change our lives or livelihoods all that much. Most of our social interactions would have come at meetings and gatherings that were now being canceled, and while we would miss our friends, we had hopes that the impact would be minimal. However, quite unexpectedly, the ramifications of all those canceled meetings and events hit home for us when Katie’s main client, a publishing company who relies on book sales at conferences, contacted her to say they would be putting a freeze on publishing books and therefore would not be sending any more work for the foreseeable future. This meant the end of work on which we rely for nearly all of our income. It is unclear how long this situation will last, so we are left wondering, is it okay for Katie to just focus on the farm for now, assuming the company will bounce back and once again offer her work? We could work on projects like our website and that orchard fence we planned to have finished last fall. But perhaps we need to prepare for the worst. Is there no time to waste in trying to seek out new clients and secure more work?
Another immediate conundrum we faced, along with Katie’s family, was whether to keep the Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup shop open. Should we, out of an abundance of caution, close it up? If we kept it open, how could we keep everyone reasonably safe? What level of risk were we willing to accept? The business is exempt from the state shutdown, but what decision felt comfortable to us? We wanted to keep getting good food to people, and we felt that a visit to the shop offers a unique opportunity for people to get out of their houses and spend a little time in nature while also keeping safe. After much discussion, we landed on keeping the shop open, but not allowing anyone inside the small salesroom and instead serving customers through a window. Every day we rethink this decision, reanalyze and recalculate the risks, but so far we are sticking with it. We feel confident that we are doing everything we can to safely serve our customers (diligent hand washing, using gloves and sanitizers, keeping a safe distance, etc), while providing a true service to the community.
We understand that each of us is in a unique situation and must make our own decisions about what makes the most sense for our farms, families, and community. But those decisions and responsibilities don’t end with the particular concerns and situations of our individual farms and businesses. It has never been so clear how dependent we are on one another for our lives and livelihoods, and with blaring warning signs about the safety and reliability of large-scale food distribution, we have a unique opportunity to show why local food is essential to food security and community resilience. This subject has been central to the development of our farm from the beginning, and while we would all prefer to have more time to arrange meetings and conferences to talk and figure out strategies, time is clearly of the essence.
In this way, then, we manage risk by working cooperatively, early and often, building networks of mutual aid that are resilient in the face of this crisis and the next ones to come. In Funks Grove, we have the unique position of lots of traffic coming through our area, with people eagerly expecting to spend money on good food. We have known this for a long time, and now in this moment, a good farmer friend has reached out to see how we can leverage that resource as other marketing opportunities turn inside-out. We are eager to embrace this idea, letting the COVID-19 crisis transform that and myriad other deferred dreams into actions taken.
Farm Commons and The Land Connection share this understanding that we are strong together; in fact, that principle underpins all of their work. This is why we look forward to holding this workshop with them, which is now rescheduled for October 9th. And by then, just imagine how much more we all will have accomplished together, survived together, and will be prepared to teach and learn and celebrate together.