Farm-to-table dining takes on new meaning amid pandemic


PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Eric Pray is used to shipping seafood all over the country. But since the coronavirus took hold, he has shifted his focus closer to home — selling lobsters from a homemade tank in his garage.

Pray, of Portland, Maine, is one of hundreds of fishermen, farmers, and food producers who have shifted to a direct-to-consumer model amid the virus outbreak. The pandemic has stressed and sometimes disrupted supply chains, shuttered restaurants, and changed the way consumers buy food, leaving some producers scrambling for a new way to reach their customers.

The farm-to-table movement in the United States has grown in recent years, as consumers have increasingly demanded locally sourced food. But in the past several weeks, the movement has grown out of necessity because some producers can’t rely on the complex web of processors, distributors, and middlemen to get food to customers.

For some, the challenges have turned into opportunities — and new customers.

“When restaurants reopen, we’ll probably keep doing home delivery, because we’ve got a good base of customers,” Pray said.

But it’s not good news for many of America’s food producers. In late April and early May, U.S. beef and pork processing capacity was down 40% from last year, according to Jayson Lusk, head of the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Plants are now mainly back online but at reduced capacity with beef and pork plants running about 10% to 15% below last year, he said.

Some sectors have also suffered reductions in value, in part because the restaurants they normally rely on are closed. Live, 1.25-pound lobsters were worth $6.74 per pound in the Northeast in April, which was 13% less than a year ago and 37% less than two years ago.

“The two biggest problems are facilitating distribution throughout the supply chain while protecting worker health, and revamping food demand in a way that avoids further disruptions,” said LaPorchia Collins, a professor in the Department of Economics at Tulane University.

Before the pandemic hit, Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, had been selling most of its pasture-raised pork and poultry to upscale restaurants, including ones started by famed chef Rick Bayless, as well as to charcuterie shops. Then, practically overnight, restaurants and shops shut down, drying up the farm’s business.

The farm has been able to switch to retail packaging and selling the pork and poultry elsewhere but it’s been far from easy, coming after endless hours of work by the family and employees, said Greg Gunthorp. That involved changing the labeling, adding bar codes, and cutting and packaging portions rather than selling in bulk.