IndyStar – Overnight, his business vanished: Farmers reliant on restaurants suffer during pandemic

Overnight, his business vanished: Farmers reliant on restaurants suffer during pandemic

Sarah Bowman and London Gibson, Indianapolis Star Published 6:00 a.m. ET March 31, 2020

Indianapolis residents clear grocery store shelves amid coronavirus pandemic. Wochit

Greg Gunthorp works in one of the professions deemed essential by the state and federal government as the coronavirus outbreak rages on. He is not a health care worker or in public safety — he is a farmer.

He raises pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys. But seemingly overnight, the market for Gunthorp’s products vanished. That’s because the people he sells to — restaurants, universities, amusement parks — have closed their doors.

“We have whole categories of species we just plain don’t have customers for right now,” said Gunthorp, who estimates that his customer base has dwindled to less than 20% of previous levels. “We’ve spent 20 years building these markets, and that literally just blew all up last week.”

At a time when many grocery stores can’t keep their shelves stocked, small specialty farmers across the Midwest are hoping to shift strategies as quickly as the restaurant markets they served have unraveled. Some are looking to sell directly to consumers.

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Gunthorp Farms owner Greg Gunthorp poses for IndyStar in LaGrange, Ind., Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (Photo: Grace Hollars/IndyStar)

Still, some in the agriculture industry worry that some small farms won’t make it through the coming months.

Larger farm operators, too, are feeling the effects of COVID-19 outbreak, as they wonder if they will have enough labor, if prices will hold and if the government will provide relief.

“It’s clear that this pandemic is really challenging and threatening all of society,” said John Piotti, president of the American Farmland Trust, a national group that works to protect and preserve farms. “But our farmers, who are the ones responsible for putting the food on our table, are experiencing particular challenges and they need our help.”