Innovation spurred by COVID-19 crisis highlights ‘potential of small-scale farmers’

On the back of these harsh restrictions, we have seen many small farmers embracing digital technologies as a way to directly sell produce, as well as community-supported agriculture schemes (CSAs) and new direct-sell delivery systems.  [SHUTTERSTOCK]

From a shortage of labour to the movement of livestock across borders, to re-directing food destined for markets, the recent coronavirus outbreak has put an enormous strain on the EU whole agri-food sector and especially on small-scale producers. However, farmers have been rapidly innovating to create novel means of selling their produce to keep themselves afloat.

After the vast majority of the HORECA (hotels, restaurants, cafes) sector has had to close its doors, farmers’ markets have become the latest coronavirus casualty, with markets being increasingly compelled to shut down in compliance with restrictive measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, which are intensifying across the EU day after day.   

On the back of these harsh restrictions, we have seen many small farmers embrace digital technologies as a way to directly sell produce, as well as community-supported agriculture schemes (CSAs) and new direct-sell delivery systems. 

Open-air markets ban: Another blow to struggling small farmers

Local farmers’ markets have become the latest coronavirus casualty after France took the decision to close open-air markets as a further measure curb the spread of coronavirus. However, the move has proved controversial given that it stands to disproportionately affect small producers.

These innovative coping mechanisms, which have rapidly sprung up, are proving to be a lifeline for farmers, allowing them to take advantage of the recent increased demand for locally sourced goods. 

Andoni Garcia Arriola, a member of the coordinating committee of the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), told EURACTIV that because many routes to market have been blocked, small-scale farmers are forced to come up with innovative ways to sell their produce.

“In the context of COVID-19, without resources and under extreme pressure, small-scale farmers are demonstrating their resilience and ability to truly meet the food needs of the local population.”

He offered the examples of Norwegians, who are increasingly using Facebook groups to sell their produce directly, and Germany, where farmers are selling directly to local shops that are still able to operate normally.

He said that this “supports the local economy instead of supermarkets and helps farmers to get fair prices.”

Garcia Arriola added that support for Community Supported Agriculture models (CSA), a system that connects the producer and consumers within the food system more closely and allows the producer and consumer to share the risks of farming, is also on the rise and “reworked due to increased demand.”

EURACTIV Poland recently reported that the coronavirus epidemic is changing consumer behaviour, with Poland experiencing a “boom” in online stores run by local farmers offering “short food supply chain” products.

They said that the turnover of many of these stores has increased by up to 200% in recent days, to the point that some entrepreneurs are even having to withhold deliveries due to a large number of orders.

The effects of COVID-19 on agriculture in the EU

In this special edition of the agrifood podcast, EURACTIV’s agrifood team explores the impact of the recent coronavirus outbreak on EU agriculture and the bloc’s main farming subsidies programme, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

However, the need to innovate in such a short time-span is also piling the pressure on the farming sector.

Garcia Arriola added that in order for small farmers to make it through this difficult moment, these initiatives “need to be supported and encouraged by concrete measures from decision-makers, for example, to provide adequate safety equipment.”

“For the institutions, this should serve to highlight the potential of small-scale farmers and demonstrate how important it is to build them into long-term policies such as the Farm to fork strategy and the CAP,” he added. 

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of farmers’ association COPA-COGECA, said that while many farmers are turning to innovative means of selling, it is imperative to “maintain normal market conditions as long as possible.”

He said many farmers are diversifying to internet sales and seeking collaboration with other farmers and, while this can assist the current situation, this is a huge challenge on “such short notice.” 

“It is always the first option to stick to the established channels because they are usually looking for options for themselves, too. This is particularly the case with farmers’ own cooperatives,” he said, adding that they “usually have some options already.”

He highlighted the use of market management tools such as Private Storage Aid, saying this is “practically available only via existing channels” and that, in some cases, “this may actually be by far the best option to limit further risks.”

As such, he added that it is “important to keep direct sales and farmers markets working.” 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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