As the novel coronavirus continues to spread into rural areas, higher risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 begin to show themselves everywhere. Whether its average age (73 years), occupation (mining and manufacturing), underlying health issues (diabetes, heart disease, etc.), an ongoing drug overdose epidemic, distance from hospitals, and a crumbling healthcare system, the risks to the backwoods should be of extreme importance to everyone even if for one reason alone: rural areas produce the majority of our food.
In the United States our agriculture sector is valued higher than many entire countries’ GDP, and yet farmers make up only 1.3% of the labor force, with an average age of 58, putting most farmers in the high-risk age category. Even more startling is the fact that of the 4.3 million farmers in the USA, a little over 300,000 of them are 35 years old or younger and only 105,000 farms produce 75% of all production in the U.S.
These statistics show how at-risk many of our farmers are as “the curve” continues to climb in rural areas where the healthcare system has already been crumbling for decades and folk medicine practices nearly disappeared. Imagine a farmer, age 62, contracting COVID-19 and needing intensive care at a hospital that’s an hour away. Upon getting there, she is told that there are no more beds, or equipment that can save her. She is advised to go into home isolation where no medical care is available, and the chances of survival are low, and her nearly 400 acres of crops will go untended for weeks, or possibly the entire season with no one to continue farming that acreage the next year.
The scenario just imagined may very will be a reality for a significant portion of our farmers. When the fact that only 3.5% of farms produce over 67% of all U.S. agriculture product value, there is a very real possibility that the U.S.A. could see a drop in our food supply from between twenty-five and seventy percent. It’s hard to tell exactly how much food will disappear as elderly and at-risk farmers are hospitalized for weeks at a time, or worse, die.
Our army of just over 300,000 young farmers who the CDC still considers low-risk for COVID-19 complications, may also still contract the virus and be out of work for a week or two, potentially leading to even more crop losses. And while direct to consumer sales like CSA’s and delivery services have been showing positive trends, these types of face to face interactions are also high-risk, even when practicing physical distancing. But since it is unlikely that any shelter-in-place or quarantine orders will ever be placed on farmers, we must continue to do our job.
In these times, that job is no longer just farming. We must train volunteers and new farmers to fill in the vacuum of all the hospitalized and dying farmers that very well may be in our summer forecast. If we want to mitigate future food shortages that are entirely due to systemic failures dating back nearly one hundred years, we need a true food revolution, and if the statistics tell us anything, young and beginning farmers must lead the way.
Picture this: If every young farmer committed to training one new farmer and help them get land to begin producing, 1 million new farms could be added to our food supply chain within a year, and over 3 million within 5 years. This type of work is already being done in urban areas, but with the focus on fruits and vegetables, and lack of arable land to produce calorie and protein crops, the urban and rural agricultural communities must unite to build and maintain resilient, stable, and self-reliant regional food systems.
As we are operating in a crisis, however, capital will be hard to acquire in the time needed, and inputs like seeds and stock are already seeing shortages down the supply chain. Low-capital low-input farming is the only way we can do what needs to be done. Regenerative practices are not only better for the new agriculture, but required. Creativity is our only limit to these challenges.
Feed the People Farms has already committed to providing training in low-capital low-input farming practices as well as coordinating the formation of new farms in urban and rural areas in Atlanta and North Georgia. The statistics for exactly how many farmers are at high-risk of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19 just don’t exist. And how much loss we are going to have to make up for may never be known with such short time to prepare, so all we can do is make educated guesses, prepare for the worst, and pray for the best.
We are currently working with Atlanta Food4Life (formerly Food Not Bombs) to build these lasting farm networks. Please visit the website if you would like to get involved in any way!
Love, piece, and elbow grease