Farming Requires Adjustments in the Season of COVID
PARKMAN – Everyone is adjusting and learning new ways to move forward during these unusual times. Checkerberry Farm owners Jason and Barbara Kafka are no different. Checkerberry, purchased by the couple in 1981, has added a production greenhouse and several high tunnels to extend this region’s short growing season. Organic produce was sold retail for many years, but grew into a wholesale market over time.
But this month, on-site sales of seedlings is taking place Thursday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to replace income normally generated selling to Fedco for their annual spring sale, which was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“Instead of planting one of my big tunnels in May, I have to wait until June to plant because we’ve been setting it up for retail space,” Jason Kafka said.
The virus is not something they take lightly, Kafka said. He sat through Zoom meetings with the Department of Agriculture, representatives from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and other producers to learn best safety practices for his family, his employees, and now, his retail customers.
“We need to keep healthy and be responsible,” he said. “None of us have ever lived through anything like this before. We want to be safe and we are following protocols. We are considered essential, so we can’t take that lightly, either. I went to Etna and got hand sanitizer from Mossy Ledge [Spirits]. I’m now in the process of setting up for retail, and I have to make some signs to remind people about social distancing. Our creativity is being put to the test – that’s the silver lining anyway – learning how to cope with it.”
Some of the farm’s wholesale outlets are seeing “quite a bit more demand,” Kafka said. “I’m not trying to grow more than I have, but I do know outfits that are.” Some of Checkerberry’s employees also work for other outlets, and that extra demand is keeping them away from the farm later into the season than usual. “We’re all feeling that there’s this demand and how do we dance through this,” he said.
One employee was up in Aroostook still, packing potatoes, for an extra week. “We had one prospective employee come by, and he had actually been working at Hannaford down in Belfast. He was done there now, but self-quarantined because one of those hot spots is down there, so there are all these little ripples emanating around. I’d like to have these workers come as soon as possible, but we just have to do it one step at a time to do things properly, so they will be a little delay here. I’ve learned over the years that the ground will only warm up so fast. There’s some stuff I’d like to get done, but if it’s a week later, that’s okay and the ground will just be a little bit warmer.”
To everything there is a season, and now it’s time to plant and help produce grow. Kafka is confident that his markets will be ready when the harvest comes. “We’ve been established with these outlets for a good long time,” he said.
Asked by Barbara what he wanted for his birthday on May 20, Kafka replied, “I’d like to have my onions in the ground. That’s kind of my target date. But things are still up in the air so much, I’m just trying to work smart.”
Social distancing with employees out in the fields is not difficult, but, “working in our production greenhouse, it is harder,” said Kafka. “We are learning new habits. Here in Piscataquis County, away from the hubbub of it all, we’ve had a bit more time to just mentally get a grasp of what we need to do and make those new habits.”
While Kafka said maybe it’s been overstated, “we are all in this together. One of our customers that came up on Saturday from Freeport commented on a farm down the road where she has always gotten her milk, but she hadn’t realized she could get cuts of meat and eggs there. So there’s a silver lining to all of this, and hopefully, people realize the importance of buying things locally. We’re all benefitting. The smaller the circle of our money exchanges, paying a local somebody for products or services, that money stays in the community. So utilize our local farms and stores – and local newspapers, too!”For more information about Checkerberry Farm, call 277-3114 or email email@example.com.