Family Farm Resilience Under COVID-19 Restrictions in North Carolina

Sara Brune
North Carolina State University

Olivia Vilá
North Carolina State University

Danielle Lawson
Pennsylvania State University

Whitney Knollenberg
North Carolina State University

Publication Date: 2021

Abstract

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted all sectors of the economy, leading to the need for research on resilience. Family farms play a central role in local community resilience since they supply local food systems and ensure access to fresh and nutritious food. The closing of retail outlets, such as farmers’ markets, and the disruption of supply chains affected the ability of family farms to sell their products. Stay-at-home orders also hindered the ability of family farms to receive farm visitors through agritourism. Agritourism is an income diversification strategy for family farms, as well as a source of seasonal employment and a recreational and educational space for communities. The attributes of agritourism are ideal to accommodate social distancing (i.e., it takes place outdoors), which may result in a safe economic activity during COVID-19. Yet the resilience—the ability to resist shocks and function as a system—of family farms that offer agritourism is unknown.

This work identifies the challenges and adaptive capacity of family farms during the COVID-19 crisis in North Carolina using 19 semi-structured longitudinal interviews with farmers during 2020. Using the resilience thinking framework to guide data analysis, the findings from this study indicate that family farm resilience relies on four factors. Family farms exhibited practices to (1) adapt to change and uncertainty by offering new activities allowing social distancing, as well as modifying crops to fit the needs they identified in customers. Family farms also relied on (2) nurturing diversity by relying on different sources of income, (3) combining different types of knowledge by communicating with their customers, fellow farmers, and different agricultural and tourism authorities, and (4) reorganizing their operations to allow for social distancing. Family farms not only withstood the health crisis but also found opportunities to improve the operation of their businesses. Furthermore, agritourism farms contributed to the overall resilience of their communities by sustaining sources of employment, improving access to food, and offering spaces for safe outdoor recreation for the public. Adapting their operations for the public to recreate safely was a key service as many felt isolated because of the COVID-19 preventive measures that included stay-at-home orders and travel bans. Altogether, this study reveals the resilience strategies that family farms employed to cope with the challenge imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Introduction and Literature Review

COVID-19 restrictions disrupted all sectors of the economy including the agriculture and tourism sectors. Family farms play a central role in their communities’ ability to recover from the COVID-19 crisis since they supply local food systems and ensure access to fresh and nutritious food (Hecht et al., 20191; Rotz & Fraser, 20152). The closure of retail outlets such as farmers’ markets (Low et al., 20153) and the disruption of supply chains as a result of the COVID-19 crisis greatly impacted the ability of family farms to sell their products. Stay-at-home orders also hindered the ability of family farms to offer agritourism at their farms. Agritourism, or visiting a working farm for education and recreation (Gil Arroyo et al., 20134), generates revenue for family farms through ticket sales for recreational offerings, as well on-site market and gift shops (Tew & Barbieri, 20125).

Agritourism is also crucial for rural communities as a food outlet, a source of seasonal employment, and an opportunity for recreation and education (Barbieri, 20136; Gil Arroyo et al., 2013; Tew & Barbieri, 2012). Measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 began in spring of 2020, one of the main agritourism seasons in North Carolina. These initial shutdown measures prevented family farms from receiving visitors, resulting in economic losses for agritourism operations. However, as preventive measures gradually relaxed, agritourism operations continued to function as a food outlet and were able to accommodate social-distancing requirements since activities take place outdoors. These attributes resulted in a safe economic activity during a global health crisis. Yet, for family farms to cope with the health crisis, they had to employ strategies that enhanced their resilience. This work identifies the challenges and adaptive capacity of family farms under the COVID-19 crisis in North Carolina.

Family Farm Resilience

Family farms are organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation (U.S. Department of Agriculture, n.d.7). These operations face external threats that affect their survival, including volatile agricultural and energy prices, rapid urbanization, and environmental challenges brought on by climate change (Hammond et al., 20138). Family farms rely on many strategies to adapt to these external threats, including constant modification of farming practices to meet market demands (Mount, 20129), revenue diversification strategies through agritourism (S. Xu et al., 201410), and expanding access to market outlets through community-supported agriculture and farm-to-school programs (Joshi et al., 200811; Martinez et al., 201012).

Family farms are considered more resilient to events such as climate change when compared to large-scale agriculture because their size renders them more flexible to improvise and adapt to changing contexts. Moreover, the knowledge derived from adaptation experiences prepares family farms to better respond to ecological changes over the long term (Rotz & Fraser, 2015). Given the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, it is important to assess family farm resilience in this context. Family farm performance during the COVID-19 crisis may largely contribute to the resilience of local economies and food systems (Brune et al., 202013), as well as the ability of communities to bounce back after the crisis. Despite the knowledge built on family farm resilience to external threats, there is scant scholarship of the adaptive capacity of family farms to a health crisis such as COVID-19.

Agritourism is an important diversification strategy for family farms to reduce risk in uncertain agricultural markets (Nickerson et al., 200114). Apart from generating income by offering recreational experiences (e.g., corn mazes) and educational services (e.g., school field trips), family farms use agritourism as an outlet to directly market to consumers (Kline et al., 201615; Tew & Barbieri, 2012). Agritourism also directly benefits communities, as it helps protect natural and cultural resources (S. Xu et al., 2014). Revenues in family farms boost local economies through increased sales taxes, generation of local employment, and stimulation of local businesses (Barbieri, 2013). Since the COVID-19 crisis occurred during a major agritourism season, it offered a unique opportunity to learn about the impact of a health crisis on farming and agritourism operations.

The resilience thinking framework proposes that four aspects are important for systems to build resilience: (1) learning to live with change and uncertainty, (2) nurturing diversity for increasing options and reducing risk, (3) increasing the range of knowledge for problem-solving, and (4) creating opportunities for reorganization (Berkes, 200716). The resilience thinking framework has been applied in diverse settings such as developing a resilience approach to meet household-level food security (Upton et al., 201617), assessing family farm sustainability (Darnhofer et al., 201018), and exploring industrial agriculture ability to adapt to modern challenges (Sinclair et al., 201419). Although existing research mainly focuses on the ecological aspects of resilience, a greater emphasis on exploring the role of human activities has been called for to inform resilience studies more holistically (Xu et al., 201520).

The resilience of family farms has been studied in multiple contexts: their (a) adaptation to change and uncertainty by modifying their farming practices to address climate change (Rotz & Fraser, 2015); (b) their ability to find niche markets, such as community-supported agriculture, that reduce intense competition (Martinez et al., 2010); (c) the combination of different types of knowledge, such as weather information, mechanic repair work, and financial knowledge, to make decisions about farm management (Hammond et al., 2013); and (d) the creation of opportunities for reorganization and modification of their operations to reduce dependency on costly external goods and services acquired off-farm (Hammond et al., 2013). Authors have examined farmers’ adaptive capacity to disturbance scenarios such as climate change, seasonal flooding, and energy spikes, enabling the identification of adaptive strategies (Hammond et al., 2013). Nonetheless, there is limited knowledge about the challenges and adaptive capacity of farmers to a public health crisis using resilience thinking.

Methodology

Research Questions

The objectives of this study are to (a) document the challenges that the COVID-19 posed to family farms, and (b) identify the adaptive strategies and resources family farms use to overcome the crisis. To achieve these objectives, the research questions guiding this work were:

  1. How have family farms been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
  2. What adaptation strategies have farms used to address the COVID-19 crisis?
  3. What diversification strategies have family farms employed to face the COVID-19 crisis?
  4. What sources of knowledge have family farms used to inform their adaptive strategies to overcome the COVID-19 crisis?
  5. What reorganization practices have family farms used to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis?

Study Site Description

North Carolina’s economy heavily depends on agriculture, with family farms representing the largest proportion (88%) of farm ownership (Flavor Farm, n.d.21). Tourism is also an important sector of the economy, generating $23.9 billion in visitor spending and 230,000 jobs in 2017 (Visit North Carolina, n.d.22). North Carolina’s Executive Stay-at-Home Order No. 121 was in effect for a month in 2020 (March 30 to April 30), disrupting all the sectors of the economy, particularly the tourism sector. The stay-at-home order and the subsequent social distancing measures resulted in a considerable revenue loss for family farms with disruptions in their usual markets and the inability to receive visitors on the weekends during the spring and school field trips on weekdays. The subsequent COVID-19 preventive measures allowed businesses to progressively reactivate their operations.

Data, Methods, and Procedures

The unit of analysis was family farms. To achieve the aim of the study, a semi-structured interview questionnaire informed by the resilience thinking framework was developed to answer the research questions. Longitudinal interviews were conducted over the phone at three time points. The first interview took place at the end of the spring agritourism season (May-June), the second interview took place after the summer agritourism season (August-September), and the third interview took place after the fall agritourism season (November). This longitudinal qualitative research incorporated time to allow for evolution and change related to the COVID-19 pandemic to be part of the analysis. For their time and contribution to this study, interviewees were offered a $25 participant incentive for each interview. IRB approval was submitted and approved in April 2020 (North Carolina State University IRB 20942).

Sample Size and Participants

This study focuses on family farms that offer authentic (non-staged) experiences with agriculture (Flanigan et al., 201423), offering educational activities at their farm, and at least one type of hands-on agricultural activity (e.g., U-pick) to ensure a high level of involvement of farm visitors with the agritourism offerings. Family farms located across North Carolina were selected using purposive sampling to guarantee farms fulfill the criteria mentioned above. The North Carolina State University research team had built strong partnerships with the participating family farms through other research projects, which encouraged farmers’ openness to share their experience in this study.

Farmers were contacted by email and informed about the research objectives and protocol. Once they provided informed consent, farmers worked with the North Carolina State University team to schedule a date and time to conduct the interviews. Seven family farms participated across the three interview sessions. Jointly, the participating farms offer hands-on agritourism activities with a variety of U-pick crops including apples, blueberries, strawberries, pumpkins, and sunflowers. The farms are located in peri-urban areas across the three North Carolina regions and range in size from 100 to 1,700 acres. Given that the nature of the study was exploratory and sought to generate rich descriptions of resilience strategies employed by family farms, the sampling strategy was not intended to represent the wide variety of family farms (Polit & Beck, 201024). Thus, the findings are not generalizable to the entire population of agritourism farms in North Carolina. Data saturation (i.e., no additional themes related to the study’s research questions emerged after the last interview) was achieved with these seven participating farms.

Data Analysis

Interviews were transcribed verbatim for data analysis using a transcription service and stored in password-protected computers. To protect the respondents’ identity, any identifiable information was removed from interview transcriptions. NVivo Qualitative Data Analysis Software was used to manually conduct thematic analysis which used the four themes of the resilience thinking framework: (1) adapting to change, (2) nurturing diversity, (3) using different types of knowledge, and (4) reorganization. Finally, we used selective coding within each of the four resilience thinking themes to derive conclusions related to the aim of the study.

Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations

The author team is composed of four women; one (recently completed) PhD research associate, one PhD candidate within a year of completing her dissertation, and two untenured early-career faculty. All four authors work in research-intensive institutions and work in contexts in which the majority of senior academic leadership positions are held by men. The authors acknowledge that the institutional and social pressures that result from these intersecting influences have, in part, resulted in the team applying a research process compatible with the values of academic institutions (i.e., a research process that is most likely to result in publishable data and stand up to academic scrutiny). We acknowledge that this approach can emphasize outcomes that do not fully recognize the values and priorities of the communities we research. In an effort to give back to the communities and individuals who contributed resources (e.g., their time) to this project, we employed a stance of reciprocity by requesting funding from the Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant program for an extension publication. This helped us focus our attention on the applicability of this work to the lives of those who participated in our study. We also prioritized writing and submitting the extension publication before the academic commitments associated with this grant to expedite access to useful information to family farms in North Carolina. Funders of crisis and disaster work may want to consider this when determining the grant expectation timelines. We’re grateful that the Natural Hazards Center has provided flexibility in this regard.

The research team would also like to highlight that through the research process, we had one research participant who terminated their participation after the first of three interviews. The team attempted to reach out after the first interview, but the participant did not respond. Because the participant did not explain the motives, the team can only reflect on the possibilities of what may have occurred. It is important to acknowledge, however, that cumulatively, across three interviews, we asked individuals to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to this project when they may have already been working overtime and under unfamiliar (and likely stressful) circumstances. Reflecting on this, it might be valuable to include a short debrief—one that would take precedence over the interview questions if restricted on time—at the end of the interview focused on the interviewee’s experience.

Finally, given that trustworthiness could have been challenging by the fact that all interviews were conducted on the phone, the research team leveraged relationships built with the interviewees in the context of other research projects. Thus, to ensure the trustworthiness of the data, the research team reached out to farmers with whom there has been a prolonged engagement through other studies.

Dissemination of Findings

To ensure the easy accessibility of findings to the public, an extension fact sheet directed at family farms was developed (Brune et al., 202125) to provide them with the lessons learned to operate during a pandemic. The fact sheet is available through the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension website (https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/four-lessons-to-build-resilience-in-agritourism) and will be shared with the board of the North Carolina Agritourism Network Association and with the Office of Agritourism of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It will also be directly delivered to the farmers who participated in the study.

The findings of this study will also be published in a peer-reviewed journal, one presentation has been delivered and two presentations are planned for the following academic audiences:

  1. Brune, S., Vila, O., Lawson, D., Knollenberg, W. (2020, July). Family farms resilience and challenges under COVID-19 containment measures in North Carolina: Preliminary findings. Researchers Meeting of the Natural Hazards Center, Boulder, Co.
  2. Brune, S., Knollenberg, W., Stevenson, K., Reilly, C., Barbieri, C., & Vila, O. (2021, June, forthcoming). Strategies for increasing resilience in tourism operations: Lessons from agritourism. Proceedings at Uncharted Territory: Reimagining Tourism for a New Era: 51st Annual Travel and Tourism Research Association International Conference, Fort Worth, Texas, USA (Accepted).
  3. Brune, S., Vila, O., Lawson, D., Knollenberg, W. (2021, July, forthcoming). Family farms resilience under COVID-19 restrictions in North Carolina. Natural Hazards Center Annual Researchers Meeting, Boulder, Colorado (Accepted)

Results

Family Farm Challenges Under the COVID-19 Crisis

The farms that were set to operate during the spring of 2020, when North Carolina’s Executive Stay-at-Home Order No. 121 was implemented, were highly impacted because they were unable to receive visitors, which resulted in significant revenue loss. When asked about the main challenges they faced, Farmer 6 said:

The portion that we have that produces the majority of our income is our agritourism activities. All our activities for the spring were totally canceled along with the field trips. They were totally canceled. There, we lost three-quarters of our income from those cancellations. We are, because of COVID, trying to figure out how to proceed with those activities.

Alternately, farms that were planning to open their operation during the fall season were not negatively affected, as Farmer 3 stated when asked about the main challenges they faced after the initial shutdown, “We'll be opening somewhere around mid-August. That puts us 45 [or] 55 days out…We've not been open to the public, so we've really not [had] to consider that right now.”

The operators who were open throughout the year indicated they were able to recover some of the losses they endured during spring, starting as early as the summer. Farmer 2 stated, “In general, our produce sales were up a good bit. Our market sales are up…It's almost doubled.” Farmer 3 said that they had record visitation numbers—which they determined by counting cars—and faced difficulties accommodating the number of visitors, “We had to park cars more than we've ever had to do before. Sales were way up. Transactions were up…”

Farms whose incomes depended highly on school field trips were deeply affected throughout the spring 2020 and fall 2020 seasons by school field trip cancellations statewide. This was a considerable source of income for farms. Farmer 5 expressed, “[School field trips are] probably 30% to 40% of our business out there in the fall… and I don't anticipate us having any of those this year. That's going to hurt quite a bit.” Farmer 1 also stated:

I can say that from a school tour standpoint, it was a huge drop-off. That's where we lost the most money, was on the school tour program. The weekends, we pretty much held our own as far as being close to the same numbers as last year, but a sharp drop off with school tours.

As school field trips were canceled for the spring and fall of 2020, this represented a significant revenue loss for farms that host school field trips as part of their agritourism offerings.

Another challenge identified by respondents was the lack of clarity in the information that farm operators were given, especially as it related to being compliant with local and state guidelines. Diverging guidelines in neighboring jurisdictions further added to the unclear circumstances faced by the farmers, as indicated by Farmer 7:

This is a really hard thing to navigate because the information is all over the place. It’s not even consistent information. Ten minutes away in Tennessee, people are not wearing masks. The Charlotte Motor Speedway said no to a race. It's being held half an hour from here at Bristol Motor Speedway. They've got 20,000 people coming.

The general uncertainty of the circumstances was also challenging, as expressed by Farmer 7 when asked about their current challenges: “[Current challenges are] Probably the uncertainty of going forward, I would say that's the main [issue]. We've pretty much adapted to where things are right now. It's the uncertainty going forward.” Closely aligned to this idea, Farmer 7 said that another challenge was decision-making about the risks of operating under the pandemic:

When you open in the midst of something like this, you risk. You risk that it’s not going to work. You risk your staff. You risk the team. You risk your reputation. If there’s ever an outbreak, you risk. There’s all sorts of stuff.

Additionally, farmers expressed that having to adapt continually throughout the year was exhausting. Farmer 2 said, “The biggest challenge is having to pivot your business based on where we are. That's a constant thing this year, is having to reinvent yourself constantly.”

The following sections discuss how the study participants adapted to face these challenges.

Adapting to Change and Uncertainty

The ability of family farms to adapt to changes was considered one of the main lessons to withstand the crisis, as Farmer 1 expressed, “We've learned to adapt and change, think outside the box, continue to improve safety measures I would say would be the top [lessons].” All the interviewees expressed that the ability to adapt their business practices was going to determine their survival during COVID-19. When asked about the main lessons so far in dealing with the pandemic, Farmer 7 replied, “Be agile; like be willing to change. I think that that's the biggest lesson.”

Family farms are considered more resilient than large-scale agriculture because of their ability to adapt their agricultural practices and modify the crops they grow to the changing demand more rapidly (Rotz & Fraser, 2015). This aspect of the resilience of family farms was tested during the COVID-19 crisis; where some farmers adapted by growing a wider variety of crops to satisfy the demand of customers who wanted to source a variety of food to preserve as was indicated by Farmer 5:

People are a little worried, and they're wanting to put food up, preserve. People who are coming by here that I have not seen come by here to buy for canning in the past are now saying that they're taking up canning and preserving [food]. Yeah, growing a bigger variety [of crops] and is a lot more challenging.

Interviewees also showed a disposition to adapt their business model according to the guidelines offered by the state, as expressed by Farmer 4, who discussed said that they would open their operation to the public based on the Governor’s order to be announced in September. Some adaptions entailed offering new activities at the farm to allow for social distancing such as drive-in movies which it was not offered before the COVID-19 restrictions, “since then, in June, we have had drive-in movies on Saturday evenings. That's when we would sell tickets, and we did generate some income from the drive-in movies” (Farmer 6). Another example is farm tours that visitors could engage in without getting out of their cars, as Farmer 2 explained:

Another adaptation that we did… we had a lot of people that were really antsy; wanted to get out. We created a drive-through experience on the farm that met all the guidelines that were in place. They signed up online, and they stayed in their car. They could drive through the farm, and we did like a little game. We did things along the ground they were riding and for them to find a little something so that they could get out of the house and do something, but follow all the safety precautions.

In general, interviewees were convinced that change was the only constant in the context in which they were operating at the time of the interviews, so having a contingency plan at all times was necessary to remain in business, as Farmer 1 expressed, “What I have learned is that nothing is safe. Nothing is secure. We must, as entrepreneurs, always be mindful of that—have a contingency plan, don't think or believe that that something can't be taken away from you.”

Nurturing Diversity

Family farms employ income diversification strategies to face increasingly competitive and uncertain agricultural markets (Nickerson et al., 2001). Therefore, family farms might diversify their income by combining agricultural and tourism activities. This operational organization characteristic of family farms was critical to their resilience during the COVID-19 crisis. When family farms were prevented from hosting visitors during the stay-at-home order in April 2020, the agricultural production aspects of their businesses remained operational. Farmers, therefore, noted that selling agricultural products helped them withstand the initial shutdown, as Farmer 5 expressed:

We do the agritourism in the fall and, on normal years, I would say the agritourism business probably saved our produce business the majority of the time. This year it looks like it’s going to be the other way around. It looks like the produce business may save the agritourism business this year.

Farmer 7’s operation also pulled from different activities that allowed them to generate income:

It was just really funny. It was the month that we were in shutdown. We came up with the idea to do Zoom calls. We were doing online orders, Zoom calls, and selling manure. I looked at the numbers, and we had sold three times what we sold last year in manure in like two weeks. I was like, ‘OK, well, this is the way we’re going to get out of this is we’re just going to sell a bunch of shit.’

Nonetheless, the possibility to generate income was limited to the farmers that found innovative ways to sell directly to consumers. For example, Farmer 6 did not have an on-farm market and their agricultural production was limited to contract farming. When asked about whether they had been able to generate income during the shutdown, Farmer 6 replied, “No, we did not because we did not grow any produce or strawberries or anything. So, we did not have crops that were coming out.”

In summary, interviewees expressed the importance of having diversified business practices that would allow them to pull on different sources of income. “If you have four legs to your business, then if you lose one leg, you're not done,” Farmer 7 said. “We didn't have to start an online store. We already had an online store. The only thing new that we started was the Zoom call. That was the only new part of what we did that we started.” Farmer 5 bolstered the point further: “The key right now is being diversified and trying to be prepared as you can for whatever may lie ahead.” Farmer 6 also said that the main lesson they had learned so far was “Diversification. More diversification, reaction time.”

Combining Different Types of Knowledge

Interviewees asserted that they used several sources of information to make decisions. “We attended webinars with the Department of Ag; the Strawberry Growers Association for North Carolina helped a lot. Our local chamber, the Tourism Authority, and Business Development Authority have been sending out a lot of information,” Farmer 3 said. The interviewees described maintaining open lines of communication with farmers’ associations and fellow farmers. “I can tell you that the North Carolina Agritourism Network…we have done webinars, we have done Zoom calls where we all get on the call and we just share our ideas together,” Farmer 2 said. This idea was also supported by Farmer 3:

[Meeting with the North Carolina Agritourism Network] was very good, I think, because it told us what other farms are doing and how they're handling certain situations. Some of them are open in the spring, so that helped us get some ideas of how they were doing things.

Farmers communicated with fellow farmers at the state, national, and international level:

The North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association is the national agritourism association for the U.S. and Canada. There’s members from Australia in it too. This is the only association that I kept in touch with during the fall season to gauge are we doing the right thing. What are other folks doing? What are other ideas? —Farmer 4

Study participants also obtained information to make decisions from their customers by seeking information through in-person interactions as Farmer 4 stated: “Luckily, I was able to use a small group of staff. They were instructed to make conversation, find out where the customers were coming from. It wasn’t really a fast-paced environment.”

Similarly, Farmer 2 used local knowledge sources and direct experience to identify the needs of the public, then reorganized their market outlet to increase the variety of products they offered at their on-farm store: “In March, we realized that things like grocery stores, they were not having a lot of produce, no milk, no meat…We were able to order more milk. We added meat, produce. We put that in the store, and a lot of people felt comfortable coming here.”

Additionally, interviewees used social media platforms to gauge the interest of visitors in agritourism activities and make marketing decisions. For example, Farmer 5 noted, “I was seeing a lot of organic advertisement; I didn’t see the need to promote any of my advertisements because people were sharing our postings more than in the past.”

Finally, receiving feedback from customers helped farmers to stay motivated throughout the challenges:

We heard over and over and over again from people how much they appreciated everything we were doing and how much they appreciated that we had gone to the trouble to be open and that we put the precautions in place that we had. We heard it over and over and over again. —Farmer 7

Creating Opportunities for Reorganization

Interviewees reorganized their operations to adapt to the changes and safety measures put in place by the governor. One of the main strategies of reorganization was to switch some of their operations to an online modality. For example, Farmer 7 indicated that they reorganized their tour registration system using online ticketing to reduce the number of visitors per tour:

We have gone to online ticketing ahead of coming. You don’t get to just pull up and expect to be on a tour. You have to get a ticket. We have limited the size of our tours. Our preferred limit before was 15. If we had a bunch of people show up all at once, we might go to 20 before. We’re at 10 now.

Reorganizing their business to require visitors to buy their tickets ahead of time helped farmers improve the planning of their operation: “The tickets were sold in three hours increments. Certain number of tickets [were assigned] for time plot and they were sold two or three weeks in advance… That is a good move for farms because they know their income ahead of time” (Farmer 4).

The ability to distribute the timing of ticket sales was also considered a way they improved their service, as visitors rarely had to stand in line for a long time. When asked whether they will maintain online ticketing the following year, even if COVID-19 was not a threat, Farmer 4 said:

Absolutely, we would never go back to what we were doing before. It’s more convenient, it’s just better because we know how much staff to have in place, we know how much food we need to purchase to keep the concession stand stocked, it’s just better planning… we had less food wasted because usually in the last hour that we’re open we discard the food significantly.

Farmer 4 revealed other advantages inherent to online ticketing such as being able to communicate with visitors. For example, if the weather was not suitable for certain agritourism activities, they could offer visitors the opportunity to reschedule their tour:

With online ticketing, you can see demographics, you can see their addresses, email, you’re capturing all that data. We had some rainy Sundays in October. Some people are not accustomed so we informed all visitors for that day about the weather conditions and allowed them to reschedule their ticket.

This ability to reorganize their business not only allowed them to stay afloat during the crisis, but it has also helped them to increase their on-farm sales, as Farmer 2 asserted: “So far, on our end, we were able to sell more strawberries than we ever have before, but it was all done here at the market. We adapted and did curbside pickup and online orders.”

Discussion and Conclusion

This study explored the practices that family farms employed to cope with a multi-sector health crisis—the COVID-19 crisis—using the resilience thinking framework. The resilience thinking framework posits that the ability of a unit to adapt to changes, nurture diversity, combine different types of knowledge, and create opportunities for reorganization will make it more resilient. Family farms not only were able to cope with the health crisis but also found opportunities to improve the operation of their businesses. Farms that (a) were able to pivot their offerings to accommodate social distancing requirements (e.g., drive-in movies), (b) nurtured diversity in sources of income (e.g., diversifying offerings), (c) combined different types of knowledge (e.g., ideas from fellow farmers and conversations with customers), and (d) reorganized their business practices (e.g., offering sales and online ticketing) were better suited to face the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Furthermore, agritourism farms contributed to the overall resilience of their communities by sustaining sources of employment, improving access to food, and offering spaces for safe outdoor recreation for the public. Adapting operations to create a space for the public to enjoy safely was an especially crucial service since many people felt isolated as a result of the COVID-19 preventive measures, which included stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions. The coping strategies employed by family farms could provide a guide that could translate to other sectors to increase resilience in the face of a health crisis or another external disruption. While not all businesses are suited to serve twofold purposes like agritourism operations, exploring opportunities to serve dual purposes and audiences expands the prospects of adapting to the changing context.

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the economy and created unprecedented challenges, but it also posed opportunities for businesses—such as family farms that offer agritourism—to emerge with competitive advantages. The resilience of the farms that adapted, nurtured diversity, combined several sources of knowledge to make decisions, and reorganized their practices also found opportunities to improve their business practices. The agritourism farms that thrived in the face of COVID-19 improved their performance by evolving an understanding of customers, markets, and advertising effectiveness, as well as opening lines of communication among their peers. As agritourism experiences take place outdoors and farms continue to adapt their offerings to accommodate social distancing, the agritourism industry could be an example of how to deal with the global health crisis, contributing to building more resilient rural communities.

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Suggested Citation: Brune, S., Vilá, O., Lawson, D., & Knollenberg, W. (2021). Family Farm Resilience Under COVID-19 Restrictions in North Carolina. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 325. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/family-farm-resilience-under-covid-19-restrictions-in-north-carolina

Brune, S., Vilá, O., Lawson, D., & Knollenberg, W. (2021). Family Farm Resilience Under COVID-19 Restrictions in North Carolina. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 325. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/family-farm-resilience-under-covid-19-restrictions-in-north-carolina