Coronavirus

Farmers Face Restaurant Closings and Curtailed Guest Worker Visas

Running a farm like Kiowa Valley Organics is a labor-intensive job, but one that yields tasty results.
Running a farm like Kiowa Valley Organics is a labor-intensive job, but one that yields tasty results. Linnea Covington

Yesterday, the restaurant and bar industry received a blow when Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered them closed until May 11 to help contain the spread of coronavirus, followed later in the day by Governor Jared Polis's extension of the closures to the entire state. But the uncertainty and economic damage extends beyond bars and restaurants; the people who grow the food cooked and served from many restaurant kitchens are also scrambling.

To make the situation even more difficult, at a time when farmers have started thinking about plotting out the season's first round of vegetables, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico has suspended the processing of routine immigrant and non-immigrant visas (though talks are currently being held to get some workers in). That means the 80,000 or so Mexican farmhands that come to help with planting and harvesting each year won't be able to cross the border, at least not for the beginning of the season.

"We have big worries; if I don't get employees to show up, we aren't going to have anything," says David Rippe, co-owner of Kiowa Valley Organics in Roggen. He says he expects to be in production in three or four weeks, which is why he timed getting workers through the H-2A temporary agricultural program by April 1. "Everything was going to work out perfect, then some ugly germ decided to wreak havoc."

click to enlarge Workers harvesting asparagus by hand at Kiowa Valley Organics. - LINNEA COVINGTON
Workers harvesting asparagus by hand at Kiowa Valley Organics.
Linnea Covington

In essence, there's the double hit of no one to work the land and no one to buy the produce. Already the Boulder County Farmers Market (BCFM) has pushed back its opening day to May, weeks after the usual start, because of the government’s recommendation for social distancing.
 
click to enlarge Brian Coppom, director of the Boulder County Farmers' Market, rings the first bell of the season at Union Station in 2019. - LINNEA COVINGTON
Brian Coppom, director of the Boulder County Farmers' Market, rings the first bell of the season at Union Station in 2019.
Linnea Covington

"The current situation is changing by the minute, and we are working hard to open as soon as we can; however, our number-one priority is the health and safety of our farmer community and market-goers," says Brian Coppom, executive director of the BCFM. "We are using this downtime to plan and figure out creative ways to bring our farmers’ fruits to the communities we serve."


Some farms, like Red Wagon Farm in Longmont, sell almost all of their produce to restaurants. At Black Cat Farm, chef and farmer Eric Skokan is facing both sides of the battle, since his farm supplies his Boulder restaurants, Bramble & Hare and Black Cat Bistro.

click to enlarge Eric Skokan on his farm in Niwot. - LINNEA COVINGTON
Eric Skokan on his farm in Niwot.
Linnea Covington
"It's like hail on everything, indoor and outdoor, and it will last for months," he says, adding that he is trying to find ways to get food to customers and keep work going for his staff. "The hard part is, the farm and the restaurant work together in a cycle, and they rely on each other in different parts of the year."

For some farmers, there's not much they can do but try and sell what does come up. At Fresh Herb Co., the lilies were already planted and are getting ready to be harvested for their Whole Foods account. Hopefully, says co-owner Kristy Anderson, people will keep buying flowers there to help keep them afloat, which she notes that you can also do online through Whole Foods. But, she says, all the herbs, starter plants and other things they sell at the farmers' markets don't really have a place to go right now.

click to enlarge A bouquet of lilies from Fresh Herb Co. - LINNEA COVINGTON
A bouquet of lilies from Fresh Herb Co.
Linnea Covington

"We're just hanging; there's not a thing we can do about it," says Anderson, adding that everything was already paid for on their end either through credit cards or their income from last year. "We can't stop the flowers from coming out of the field."


With that sentiment, keep fresh food and flowers in your mind as you stock up. Yes, frozen and canned foods last longer, but we all need something bright in our lives right now.
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Linnea Covington moved back to Denver after spending thirteen years in New York City and couldn't be happier to be home, exploring the Mile High and eating as much as possible, especially when it involves pizza or ice cream.
Contact: Linnea Covington