Massaro Community Farm in the Year of COVID-19

“Farming through a pandemic has been an exhausting, but exciting, endeavor. The hardest part has been the lack of social connection. Our community is one of the biggest parts of our CSA; it’s part of our mission statement: Keep farming, feed people, build community.”
– Alyssa DesRosier, Assistant Farm Manager

The COVID -19 crisis has exposed minor cracks and deep craters in the US food supply chain. Dairies that sold milk to processors that only supply restaurants and food services had the heartbreaking task of dumping millions of gallons of milk. When giant meat processing plants closed down because so many of the workers were infected, hog farmers had to “euthanize” thousands of hogs by drowning, shooting and suffocating. Ordered to reopen when the administration declared that it is essential to maintain the meat supply, at least 54,000 meatpacking workers have become sick and 270 have died as of early February 2021.

But the crisis has also revealed that family-scale farms that are deeply embedded in their communities have been able to pivot nimbly to make high-quality, locally grown and processed foods available while keeping everyone – farm family, farm workers and customers – safe.

Workers at the farm don PPE to bag up shares

Workers at the farm don PPE to bag up shares

By March 20, 2020, within days of the COVID-19 shut down, Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut was taking orders via email, and a week later was running a new on-line store not only to sell winter greens from their own greenhouse, but to offer products from neighboring farms that had lost markets when restaurants and schools closed. To learn more about how the farm made this switch so quickly and what it cost them to do so, I called lead farmer Steve Munno to hear his story. We are both members of the NOFA Interstate Council policy committee, which has made extra efforts through this year to keep in touch with the needs of our farmer members so that we can advocate for them before state and federal governments

Steve has been the Farm Manager since the start of Massaro Community Farm 11 years ago when he answered the call for a farmer who could organize a CSA combined with hunger relief and educational programming. Having trained at UC Santa Cruz and then worked with the Food Project, Steve was excited to shape a farm that would combine organic farming with food justice. “The injustices of our world, my own privileges and the need to actively work for change were evident early on,” Steve said, “so these are the initial seeds” of his commitment to social justice. “From there, over the years I got to study and work with people and at organizations where social justice was a pertinent part of the conversation or integral to the mission.”

Alyssa DesRosier with Massaro Community Farm kale.

Alyssa DesRosier with Massaro Community Farm kale.

By 2020, the farm had an executive director and a staff of eight, including an education director, a CSA with 240 shares, and sales at local farmers’ markets and area restaurants. In addition to commercial sales, Massaro has made a commitment to donate 10% of all production to local hunger relief agencies. The farm has given away over 65,000 pounds of food since 2010, raising funds to pay for the donations and educational programs with such annual community-building events as an on-farm dinner and a bikeathon. Steve lives in the farm house with his wife and two children. Vivian is 3 and Miles had his first birthday in August, so farm safety also means family safety.

The farm takes its name from the Italian family that ran a small dairy with a flock of chickens from 1916 till the death of the last farming member in 2007, when the town of Woodbridge took ownership to protect the land. A group in town who wanted farming to continue established a non-profit that leases 57 acres from the town. The active board shapes the farm’s policies, supports educational programming and helps raise funds. Hundreds of people have volunteered to participate in the farm’s many activities.

More on-farm sales, goodbye (for now) to markets

When Connecticut became a pandemic hot spot in early March, 2020, there were two other staff people who had been working with Steve through the winter. Together, they had to figure out how to keep the farm open and keep themselves and customers safe. Lindsay Browning, who works in the farm office, had experience with Square (an on-line order program), so they used that system to set up a store with on-line ordering and pick-ups at the farm.

Since farmer friends had lost their sales outlets, Steve added their offerings to the list. Since the farm has a mailing list of 3000, it was not hard to attract customers. Within a week, the farm was providing once a week pick-up that continued weekly through the spring and summer, then stretched out to every other week for the winter of 2021.

Steve reports that they plan to keep the online store going as long as there is interest from customers and farm partners, and as long as winter harvesting from their high tunnels allows. From Massaro they’ve been offering kale, chard, arugula, lettuce, salad mix, carrots, radishes and jarred tomato products. From local partners they’ve offered eggs, milk, buttermilk, kefir, cheese, coffee, apple cider, mushrooms, pork/charcuterie, and butternut squash. They schedule customer arrivals at half hour intervals – safe spacing requirements and the time slots limit the orders to 150. It takes Steve and his staff all day to bundle the orders. Customers drive through the farm parking area, stopping at the barn where farm staff, gloved and masked, bring out the orders, placing them on a table for no-touch retrieval or pop them into the trunk.

Since farmer friends had lost their
sales outlets, Steve added their
offerings to the new online store

Steve talked about the other things that were different this year. To meet the big surge in requests for CSA shares, they expanded membership by 30% to 305 households. In previous seasons, CSA pick up at the farm has been “market style”, where subscribers select their produce from bins that the crew sets out for them. To ensure pandemic safety, the farm has had to bag or box the shares. The farm has had to spend over $1000 on BioBags for packing CSA shares, and at least $500 on disposable gloves and extra packaging materials, but no one on the farm or any of their immediate friends has gotten sick. Farm staff has clocked in 1500 hours more than in 2019. Customers are very appreciative of the service.

Packaging expenses went way up to ensure customer safety.

Changing to meet this moment was a big effort. Assistant Farm Manager Alyssa DesRosier is also a quilter so she made cloth masks for the crew. I asked her to reflect on her experience and she wrote: “Everyone who works at Massaro farms does so because we care about providing healthy food for our community. When I made masks for the staff, I sewed hearts on them to remind everyone that even though they couldn’t see our smiling faces, we were here for them and cared about them. I am so proud of our team for all of the extra work that went into creating the farm store and online ordering system. Steve has done an incredible job organizing all of this, and it’s an honor to work with him. The farm staff had to put in more hours earlier in the season and change our crop plans to ensure that we could provide food for our customers when they needed it the most.”

With COVID-19, the farmers’ markets changed their rules to require that all sales be ordered and paid for in advance, a system that does not work well for Massaro. It is a matter of logistics, Steve explained. Harvest for the CSA takes place on 3 to 5 days a week with what is extra going to sales for the farmers’ markets. In past years, Steve had a sense of what they would bring to market, but was able to make adjustments at the last minute to accommodate fluctuations in share numbers and production from week to week. With the new rules, he would have had to put the information online early in the week, confirm what they have, and receive and pack orders before going to market. Although he wanted to support the other vendors and going to market is a big social thing for the family, he and his staff made the hard decision not to participate. The farm also dropped restaurant sales for the year.

Priorities included hunger relief and youth employment

By contrast, Steve increased the amount of produce the farm donated for hunger relief. Demand was up from New Haven, the Naugatuck Valley and the Connecticut Food Bank. Requests also came in from new organizations like Semilla Collective, a mutual aid/food distribution group in New Haven created by community members (including a former Massaro farm staffer) in response to the pandemic. Massaro donated to FISH of Greater New Haven, Loaves and Fishes, Common Ground High School, the Salvation Army, Valley United Way and others.

While the CSA has usually had a few shares that are purchased for donation, most of the shares go to people who can pay. Farm income from those sales covers operating costs, including staff salaries. The farm’s initial capitalization and money to buy new equipment and make major repairs depend on donations, grants from private foundations and state and federal programs.

Like many not-for-profits, Massaro had to get creative this year to find substitutes for on-farm fundraisers – the spring plant sale with music, the Labor Day dinner that attracted 180 people last year, and the summer camp. Their on-line fundraisers and programs were successful, but raised significantly less than events in previous years. The farm applied for and received two rounds of Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funds and Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funds that were critical to fill the gap from lost revenue, allowing them to keep all staff and hire additional people as well.

Except for use of the nature trail, Massaro also had to cancel on-farm programs. For the first years of the farm, Steve ran the educational programs himself together with board members and a few retired teachers who formed an education committee. In 2019, they hired a full-time education director to service the school groups that come year-round for after-school programs, manage volunteers, and run the summer camp for children 5 to 9 and weekend programs for families. Also cancelled was an April field day on Food Justice Certification in partnership with the Agricultural Justice Project and NOFA. The farm did offer on-line programs for children. By fall, Massaro was able to bring back limited on-farm programming, with COVID safety protocols in place, which continued over the winter.

In 2018, Massaro began a Summer Youth Employment Program, hiring half a dozen area high school students to work alongside the farm staff in all aspects of the farm operation. The program provides weekly curriculum/skill-building lessons, and gives the youth the chance to be part of a team and build job experience while doing great work in the community. The intention was to build on this program in 2020, but Steve held off on advertising and hiring in the spring, not knowing what would be safe and feasible come summer. In late June, they hired four students, all graduating seniors, and had them work two to three days per week, from 8 AM to 12 PM. Their start time was staggered with the farm’s staff, who begin at 7:30, so that everyone could maintain distancing when arriving at the farm. By keeping the youth work day to the morning hours, potential exposure time for everyone was reduced and there were fewer people eating lunch at the farm. After a couple weeks it was clear this was working well, so they hired three more recent high school grads who worked from early July to mid-August.

To be sure of enough labor in case of illness, Steve hired two extra staffers. Seven of the current staff of eight had already worked at the farm, know one another and get along well. Steve’s policy is to avoid reliance on volunteers or apprenticeships of what he refers to as “hazy legality.” He calls the employees staff and pays hourly wages. Together they were able to figure out how to work safely. Steve prefers working as a group to get things done, but this year they broke into smaller teams, staggered lunchtime and ate at picnic tables spaced out under shade canopies. Only one person could be in the farm truck at a time. The break room was too small to use. Everyone wore a mask when they were together in the barn and they wore gloves for harvesting as an extra precaution, though it was not that different from their usual food safety protocols.

Overall, Steve says things went fairly smoothly. He feels grateful that his children were isolated on the farm with space to play and there was plenty of food. “I am grateful and privileged to be here at this moment,” Steve says. “I feel grateful that people are taking the safety protocols seriously. I don’t want to get sick – my kids, hundreds of people rely on us for food, and our staff for work. In farming, every year is different, but I am hoping for a particularly bountiful year. And looking forward – I hope the renewed interest in local produce will not be short lived, and that the CSA will be full by winter, and not wait till May.” When I checked back with him in February, 2021, things were looking hopeful – CSA sales were up about 33% from where they were in February, 2020.

Even before the pandemic, farm costs had been going up and all the new safety measures have added to the expenses. The higher price point Massaro Farm is able to charge for high-quality, certified organic produce is still not enough, Steve says, to pay his staff what they are worth – “I don’t think any of my team are compensated enough. We need to make larger changes so we can pay every one better.”

While mainstream supply chains suffered major snags in 2020, organic CSA farms like Massaro have been able to nimbly reorient marketing and production to serve the urgent needs of their communities. But these adjustments have come with a cost – the additional investments needed to buy protective equipment, packaging supplies, and to pay the fees for on-line services; and the emotional and physical wear and tear on the farmers and their crews. The first rounds of federal stimulus money followed the usual well-worn channels into the bank accounts of the biggest industrial farms. Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, NOFA and our many allied sustainable agriculture organizations lobbied hard in D.C. to persuade USDA to alter the requirements for stimulus funding to divert the flow into investments that support farms like Massaro. The challenge continues in the months and years ahead to build a big enough coalition of farmers, food workers and many others to create the localized, socially just, ecological and resilient farm and food system we want for our future.

Elizabeth Henderson farmed at Peacework Farm in Wayne County, NY, one of the first CSAs in the country, co-chairs the NOFA Policy Committee, and represents the NOFA Interstate Council on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project. She is the lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007)