Opinion: While economy goes bust, farm-to-table booms
Middletown, Md. — There is an argument to be made that the coronavirus pandemic could change the food supply chain for the long term. It may disrupt across the board our reliance on distant producers, processing plants and large chain grocery stores.
In the process, it would connect many of us to local food in the same way our parents and grandparents were.
For months during this pandemic, consumers who used to drive to the supermarket to buy prepackaged food have instead gotten food delivery literally from a farm to their table. People are getting hooked on direct food sourcing and eating healthier because of it.
Farmers such as Tony Brusco here at South Mountain Creamery are growing their family farms in the process.
Brusco’s farm provides fresh milk, cream, yogurt, eggs, butter, produce and select cuts of meat — all from his farm and other local family farms that have tilled the soil, grown the grass that feeds their cows, milked, churned and prepared everything else they deliver.
While the number of unemployed workers nationwide grows sky-high, demand has been so strong that Brusco is hiring people and has brought along other local farms to share in the profits.
“We’re a second-generation dairy farm family that started back in 2001,” he told me. “There's four of us total that run the operation. My wife and I run the creamery (or the value-added side of our farm), and my brother-in-law and his wife run the farm side of our operation.”
“We like to say that we take care of things from dirt to door,” he said. “So we grow the crops. We raise the animals and milk the cows. We pasteurize and bottle the milk. We do the home deliveries of all the products to our customers’ doors. Our customers have an intimate knowledge of our farm and our farm operation and standards that we offer.”
The creamery makes about 10,000 deliveries, all in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia areas. That includes a full line of milks and ice cream from their creamery.
It’s fantastic ice cream.
“We’ve been working on that recipe for a long time, and it's changed over the years, but we're pretty proud of the quality of the products we’re putting out, for sure,” said Brusco.
The rolling hills with lush green meadows punctured by silos surrounding the farm operations are as picturesque as a postcard. The sounds of cows mooing as they head toward their daily milking add to the bucolic charm.
Inside the dairy plant, a hundred efficiencies are going on at the same time. The one that caught the eye for a moment was the employees pouring rich chocolate milk into glass bottles.
Outside the production plants, there’s a long line of delivery trucks, which look like old-fashioned milk trucks and are decorated with murals of cows, chickens, a barn door and a promise: “Bottled at the source, delivered fresh to you at your front door.”
“Back in 2004,” Brusco said, “when we were first getting started, really, we were struggling to grow, but we found ourselves in the right spot at the right time because of the local food movement. Right now we kind of find ourselves in a similar spot, where we spent the last 19 years building up an efficient delivery service, and right now that’s where everyone’s going toward. Everyone’s going to get food delivered right to their homes, avoid the stores.”
Brusco said they are seeing this in a couple of ways. “It’s a great opportunity for us to share our products and get people to learn more about us or our farm operation,” he said. “We also carry a lot of products from other farmers, like produce and meats and things. So those farmers are finding new outlets for their products through us because farmers market attendance is down. We’re working on supporting those guys.”
One big problem he sees on the horizon for all farmers is getting the raw supplies and ingredients to produce their food to be sold.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg at the moment, and I think we're going to see some major issues here very soon,” he says. “Right now egg cartons are super back-ordered. I can produce the eggs, but if I can’t get the cartons to put them in, there’s nothing I can do with the eggs.”
“Same goes with milk,” he says. “We use glass bottles, and the company that prints on the bottles is up in Canada, and they are going on a 10-week back order, and they supply all the glass bottles for the country.”
Brusco says he is seeing these kinds of raw ingredients getting further and further back-ordered: “My concern is I think if things don’t change sooner than later, we’re going to be heading into a big problem.”
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the everyman and everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.