Thursday, February 18, 2021

Efficiency Versus Resilience

By Andrea Yoder

Beautiful produce displayed by one of our
Twin Cities Food Co-Op retail partners
If you have ever doubted the impact your personal purchasing and lifestyle choices may have on the environment, society, economics, the supply chain or our food system, stop and consider the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had.  As we come up on nearly a year since COVID-19 fully infiltrated our reality, we now have the ability to reflect on what has happened and glean valuable insights that can more carefully steer our individual and collective ships into the future.  The Washington Post published an article earlier this month entitled “The Efficiency Curse” written by Michael Pollan who opened with this statement:  “The first teachable moment of the pandemic, for me, was the supply chain.”  When shelter at home orders went into effect, the market place changed, literally overnight.  Consumers made immediate and drastic changes to their behaviors.  No more eating at restaurants, no more going to work or school, less frequent shopping trips, nearly all meals at home and more food preparation happening in home kitchens.  Shelves became barren with shortages of food, cleaning supplies, and of course…toilet paper.  While hoarding may have been happening in some cases, it didn’t account for the entirety of the shortages.  And while one segment of the market couldn’t keep product on the shelves, another segment of the market now had surplus.  What was happening to our supply chain?

Tomatoes & Tomatillos, just two of over 80 
different crops grown on our farm!
Pollan’s observation was this:  “In times of crisis, resilience counts for more than efficiency.”  Suppliers to the industrialized, institutional food chain were dumping food, while the other side of the food chain saw shortages.  It was hard to watch the news stories of farmers dumping milk and burying vegetables in the field when their markets literally dropped out from under them.  Perishable foods that normally would’ve been funneled into the industrial, institutional food system to be turned into products such as onion rings and French fries to be served in restaurants, schools, event venues, etc no longer had a home and a quick pivot to handle this large excess wasn’t available or possible for many farmers and producers within the context of the “hyperspecialized system” that was created for these products.  The system is efficient when it’s working—production of larger quantities of one item with larger quantities per delivery to larger accounts means lower prices and greater efficiency.  However, Pollan’s observation was the overriding reality, “When the coronavirus came, we realized the system was fragile, rigid and therefore vulnerable.”

Rafael changing the plates on the vacuum seeder
to adjust to different sizes of vegetable seeds

It is one thing to go without a cleaning supply or your favorite brand of toilet paper, but when a basic human necessity for survival, food, disappears from the shelves it can be more than unnerving.  In the midst of a fracturing and collapsing industrial food system, the demand for local food increased across the country.  Consumers stopped looking to the system that was failing and they started finding ways to source their food that were more direct and closer to home.  All of those sayings that have been adorning bumper stickers started to have true meaning.  “Know your farmer, Know your food…..”  The strength of a local food system is not always efficiency, but as Pollan identifies—it’s resilience.

Manuel & Juan Pablo planting salad mix,
baby spinach & arugula in early April 

There may be many farmers in the world who would look at our field plans, shake their heads and call us simply crazy for growing more than 80 different crops!  But there’s a reason we do this and that reason is diversity.  First of all, we value CSA and in order to feed the same group of people for 30 weeks out of the year, we need more than 5-10 crops!  But beyond that, diversity within our business has always allowed us to have some flexibility and a bit of built in resilience.  Even in the most successful growing season, we are going to experience crop losses.  If we play our cards right, we can absorb the losses with the success of other crops, or at the very least have enough wins over the course of the entire season to stay in the game.  Pollan’s insight into diversity is spot on.  “There is a price to diversity, but it creates a cushion that can be very important in times of crisis.”

1.5 acre potato field with 9 different varieties!
We too strive for efficiency and work hard to find it anywhere we can.  We do need to remain profitable and so we need to be cognizant of our resources and find ways to use them efficiently.  We mechanize where we can, find more efficient ways to manage weeds, maximize nutrient inputs to produce healthier crops that will yield better, and review our processes frequently to make our day to day work as efficient as possible making the most of every hour of our days.  But when you grow over 80 different crops, everything isn’t going to always be efficient.  We have to get the potato planter out, grease it, set it up and maintain it so we can use it one time every year to plant about 1.5 acres of potatoes.  This is like one loop around the sandbox for the big boys who are planting hundreds or maybe even thousands of acres of potatoes!

Green bean harvest....use both hands!
What about green beans?  Wouldn’t it be easier to pick those with a machine?  Maybe, but green beans only represent about 2% at most of our overall acreage and we know that we’ll break a lot of beans if we pick by machine.  We’ll also lose some that will fall on the ground and get missed.  If we were sending them to a cannery or processing facility, we really wouldn’t worry too much about a few broken beans.  In fact, we’d grow a tougher variety that could take a little rougher handling.  But that’s not our end market and so we pick them by hand.  Efficient?  We try to be, but we know beans aren’t one of our most profitable crops due to the high labor cost.  We do however make a few friends in our CSA membership with those who appreciate having a flavorful, tender bean and we’ll consider that our payment for the sacrifice of efficiency because we know that these are the people who will stick with us when we face challenges and crises.  Monocultures invite vulnerability, whether that is a monoculture in a field, a feedlot, or a business.

Irrigation sprinklers watering a field to
germinate freshly planted seeds in a drought year
Over the years we’ve had to learn to pivot and be resilient in many different circumstances.  This pandemic is not the first challenge or crisis we’ve had to deal with.  We’ve had to adapt and respond to weather, shifts in the marketplace, changes in the economy, and fluctuations in our membership, etc.  We have been trying to find ways to be more resilient in our business long before the pandemic set in.  Most of our pre-pandemic thoughts around this issue have been related to climate change and our increasingly more erratic weather patterns.  We have tried to find ways to mitigate our risks and losses through strategies such as succession planting, planting a variety of crops, planting in different locations, and devising creative strategies for farming that will help us be more resilient when faced with challenges that impact our crops.  This is also why we have diversified our business and grow for both CSA as well as to supply wholesale and retail accounts.  Over the years we’ve been able to flex up on sales to one area when sales are lacking in another.  So when the phone started ringing and the CSA orders started rolling in last March and April, we didn’t have to turn anyone away until very late in the season. We simply changed our planting plans, redirected our resources and shifted to match the demand so we could maximize our capacity to feed people through our CSA program.  In the end, our ability to be resilient because of the diversity within our operation actually did help us realize greater efficiency!  The overhead to facilitate a CSA program was now spread out over more shares.  Our trucks were full, our time invested in harvesting, preparing and packing CSA vegetables was more efficient as well.

Gratitude for our front-line crew members!
In many ways the pandemic has forced us as a society to be more conscious and mindful about where our food is coming from and what it takes to get it to our plates.  It has also shed light on those individuals who previously have been overlooked in the shadows of our food system, “…the essential and front-line workers many of us never noticed before but whose well-being can no longer be separated from our own.  It turns out we’re all in this leaky boat together, so, like it or not, we’d better start building systems and supply chains resilient enough to withstand the shocks to come.”

Please don’t ever underestimate the power you as an individual have to impact society, the economy, the environment, your community, and our food system simply with the day to day choices you make.  You can, and do, make a difference.


Tanya N said...

Wonderful post, thank you! Supporting resiliency in our local food systems has gradually become one of my top economic priorities.
I was one of those pandemic orders that come in last April, and was so very happy you were there and I had a lovely CSA experience. I so appreciated being able to significantly reduce my trips to the grocery store all year. I will happily support HVF with my business for another growing season. I look forward to taking a field trip up your way to visit the farm in person sometime in the post-pandemic future.

nancy lallas said...

Tha9nk you for the wonderful article. We love your whole ideology on growing our food. So lucky to have our food brought to us by such conscientious farmers. Here's to 2021!

crloeb said...

Thank you for this thoughtful piece, and thank you more - much more - for the wise and meticulous practices the piece describes that keep "our" farm going strong. We continue eating Harmony produce all year long, so you're never far from our thoughts. Endless gratitude!

Unknown said...

Thank you for your philosophy of farming. My family has enjoyed HVF veggies, fruit,cheese and meat for over 10 years. After learning of problems in the meat processing plants early in the pandemic I decided it made sense to join the "meat club". It lessens my anxiety to have a freezer full of meat and wonderful vegetables!