When the pandemic hit last March and sent food supply chains into a tailspin, many American farmers found themselves peering into a chasm of unknowns. Who would buy microgreens intended for now-shuttered hotels, or milk meant to fill small cartons for newly empty school cafeterias? Would they have to plow under surplus potatoes? Was it possible to pivot berry harvests from restaurants to CSA sales? And should they—or could they—adjust their crop plans?

A year later, schools and various food-centric businesses are beginning to reopen. But aside from a bullish commodity crop market—Ag Farmer reports that corn and soy farmers plan a 4.8 percent increase in acreage over last year, to 182.3 million acres—some farmers are unable to fiddle with production. Still others feel tentative about what the market holds in store, which affects what they’re thinking of planting.

“Farmers are in a challenging spot,” said Heron Breen, research and development coordinator for Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine, about 30 percent of whose business comes from small and medium-size regional farms in the one-to-20-acre range. “Do they make the bet that they’ll start seeing sales from restaurants and hotels in the greater Boston and Portland areas? That could dry up if things go in reverse, so people are cautious.”

That caution has manifested in a couple of ways. For starters, farmers have “used a sharp pencil to reboot their farm plan,” and are planting fewer crops they know they can sell. “No one is trying to wow a high-end chef with something unique this year,” said Breen. Additionally, many farmers have been buying seed out of season. “Peoples’ livelihoods depend on getting the varieties they rely upon for performance, disease resistance, or flavor, and we saw a huge amount of orders over the summer out of cycle; we can’t guarantee germination six months later but [farmers] were willing to take the risk to make sure they had Sungold tomato seed,” for example. The result of this doubly conservative tactic, said Breen, might have “farmers breathing a sigh of relief at the end of summer, if they manage to sell everything they’ve got.”

For Zamora, “basic” means not trying any new raspberry varietals this year and sticking with only five or six varieties of cherry tomatoes that “make a good medley.” He’ll put in more staples like green beans and squashes, and cut back on the jicama-on-the-vine that he usually provides to 350 local public-school classrooms, as educational material—he’s got no jicama contracts for 2021-22.

Read the full article about shifting planting priorities by Lela Nargi at The Counter.