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Going it alone in two of America’s agricultural towns

Farmworkers employed by Hillside Farm Labor Contracting harvest broccoli in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Farmworkers employed by Hillside Farm Labor Contracting harvest broccoli in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Cattle ranchers Will Woodworth, left, and his father, Rick Woodworth, cut up quarters of beef at the Flying W Farms in Burlington, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Cattle ranchers Will Woodworth, left, and his father, Rick Woodworth, cut up quarters of beef at the Flying W Farms in Burlington, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Farmworkers employed by Hillside Farm Labor Contracting harvest broccoli in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Named essential workers, the country’s small farmers, ranchers and farmworkers are coping with the pandemic without a corporate safety net, persevering through shutdowns, slowdowns and supply-chain meltdowns.

Farmworkers check in at Javier Zamora's farm in Royal Oaks, Calif., on a chilly Salinas Valley morning. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Farmworkers check in at Javier Zamora's farm in Royal Oaks, Calif., on a chilly Salinas Valley morning. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Salinas Valley organic farmer Javier Zamora drives his workers to a berry field in Royal Oaks, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Salinas Valley organic farmer Javier Zamora drives his workers to a berry field in Royal Oaks, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Farmworkers check in at Javier Zamora's farm in Royal Oaks, Calif., on a chilly Salinas Valley morning. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Moorefield, W.Va., is an Appalachian town of about 2,500 people, changed forever by Pilgrim’s Pride’s three poultry plants clustered at the South Branch of the Potomac River. Nearly 3,000 miles west, Salinas, in Monterey County, Calif., made famous by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, is an agricultural city of 155,000 that produces a significant portion of the nation’s leaf and head lettuces, celery, broccoli and strawberries.

In these two American breadbasket communities, small farmers and ranchers have been left to improvise as their markets swivel and contract. In its early months considered an urban problem, the coronavirus has been especially brutal in rural agricultural communities, where farmworkers were slow to get personal protective equipment and effective safety protocols.

In both Salinas and Moorefield, the coronavirus has contributed layers of complexity to an already backbreaking professional path. Several years of historically poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs under the Trump administration have cut off potential for agricultural exports and left farmers with few reserves before the pandemic began to hopscotch across the country.

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For Mary Jo Keller, 90, Moorefield has always been home, where she and her family make a dwindling living from dairy cows. Not far away, Rick Woodworth raises cattle on Flying W Farms — he owns them from birth to slaughter, growing all his own feed, a refutation of modern industrial agricultural models epitomized by Pilgrim’s.

“We have not participated with Pilgrim’s Pride or been involved with them in any way, shape or form,” he says. “I’m a Type A personality clear off the chart: I want to be in control of my destiny, not be on a contract to produce for Pilgrim’s. We’ve chosen to go our own way and take our own risks.”

More than half of all agricultural sales in the state are poultry and eggs, a market dominated by large-scale, vertically integrated facilities owned by multinational food companies. They depend on tight margins, a constant supply of new workers and government support that prioritizes increased line speed and efficiency. Cattle ranchers in the area are rare these days, dairy farmers all but extinct. What these small operators lack in economies of scale they gain in autonomy and open space.

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In Salinas, the small independent farmers have few choices: sell to restaurants and at farmers markets, or at a reduced price to wholesalers. Most of Salinas’s organic growers sell their products to a single distributor: Coke Farm, an organic grower/shipper in nearby San Juan Bautista.

Celsa Ortega, Rigoberto Bucio and Javier Zamora each have taken a new route to independence. Immigrants from Mexico, all three began as workers on large farms, going through programs with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a nonprofit that trains limited-resource and aspiring organic farmers and then equips them with land. Ortega farms only an acre, Bucio farms 12 and Zamora a little over 100 — small farmers battling the “get big or get out” ethos that has taken root in agriculture since the 1970s.

Small farmers, new farmers and farmers of color, struggling in the shadow of Big Ag, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and are often not eligible for federal relief — many didn’t qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans or the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, which excludes those who rely on direct-to-consumer sales. And while tens of billions of dollars have been funneled to large-scale ranches and meat processing companies and commodity row crop farmers in the South and Midwest, those who grow “specialty crops,” the fruits and vegetables humans eat, have frequently not qualified for support.

Much in the way the Dust Bowl of the 1930s prompted one of the largest migrations in our history, the adversity has changed lives and spurred many small farmers and ranchers to think entrepreneurially about new markets.

Farm fields are watered on a foggy morning. Small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. A worker from Eritrea walks home from his shift at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield. (Top photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post; bottom photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Farm fields are watered on a foggy morning. Small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. A worker from Eritrea walks home from his shift at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield. (Top photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post; bottom photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Farm fields are watered on a foggy morning and small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. A worker from Eritrea walks home from his shift at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield. (Top photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post; Bottom photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Farm fields are watered on a foggy morning and small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. A worker from Eritrea walks home from his shift at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield. (Top photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post; Bottom photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Farm fields are watered on a foggy morning. Small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. A worker from Eritrea walks home from his shift at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield. (Top photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post; bottom photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)Farm fields are watered on a foggy morning and small organic farmer Cecilia Rojas boxes up bok choy in Salinas, Calif. A worker from Eritrea walks home from his shift at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant rises beyond a cornfield. (Top photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post; Bottom photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

About 60 miles from the tech epicenter of Silicon Valley, the Salinas Valley, often called "the Salad Bowl of the World,” is home to about 90,000 farmworkers. With an average wage of $25,000, housing is expensive and farmworkers often crowd together in apartments. Celsa Ortega, 33, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her four children, Kaivey, 14, Michael, 12, Lucero, 9, and Rafael, 6. She grew up in a small town in Oaxaca, finishing junior high school in Mexico and immigrating to the United States in 2006.

“I started in the fields, picking strawberries, then harvesting cilantro. That’s what I felt most comfortable doing,” she said through a translator. She went through an agricultural training program and now farms her own acre, half of which is planted with romaine lettuce, which, like many farmers her size, she sells to organic wholesaler Coke Farm. The payment takes a while to get to her hands, she says, which makes it hard to reinvest in the next seeds and soil amendments.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she grew broccoli for restaurants, harvesting the main head and letting the side shoots regrow. When restaurants closed and she had no buyers, she disked all her broccoli back into the earth, taking on an additional job at night so she could supervise her children’s schoolwork during the day.

Constant expansion, with its promise of greater economies of scale, has been the agricultural mantra since Earl Butz was the secretary of agriculture in the 1970s — Ortega knows this applies to her, too, but to grow her acreage she needs more capital. She says she did not qualify for any pandemic-related agricultural assistance.

“I got a job cleaning model houses at night. I still had bills to pay and I didn’t have the security that my harvest would provide us with enough resources.”

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Transitioning from being a field worker to farming her own land, organic farmer Celsa Ortega looks over her broccoli field in Salinas, Calif. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“I’m just getting started with my business; it’s a brand-new farm. I will need to get more land to grow, but I need to support that.” — Celsa Ortega

Celsa Ortega hugs her son, Rafael, at the park near the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her four children in Salinas, Calif.

With schools closed and without any child care, Ortega has had to think creatively. Each of her children was supplied with a school-issued laptop, but the apartment doesn’t have enough room for each child to have a workspace and the Internet isn’t strong enough for them to be connected all at once. She’s taken to bringing two of her kids to the field with her. They do their lessons in the car using a wireless hotspot, occasionally pausing schoolwork to help her weed and harvest.

“My oldest, Kaivey, is capable of staying at home and looking after his siblings,” says Ortega. “But they aren’t doing well in school because they don’t have the supervision.”

And with all the kids at home, the preparation and expense of every meal falls to Ortega. She’s worried about rumors of a wilt befalling romaine in Monterey County that makes it look burned. She can’t afford to have a crop wiped out.

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Celsa Ortega takes a break with her children, Lucero and Rafael, during homework time at their apartment, which doesn’t have enough room for each child to have a workspace and the Internet isn’t strong enough for them to be connected all at once. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Celsa Ortega's sons, Kaivey (left) and Michael pitch in to clean the apartment before bedtime.

Lucero reads before bedtime.

Celsa Ortega struggles to put Rafael to bed.

Like Salinas, Moorefield has always been an agricultural area, with early settlers as far back as the 1770s raising cattle and growing corn and hay for animal feed. But by the 1930s it became known as the Poultry Capital of West Virginia, broiler and laying hen operations casting an ever-greater shadow over the town, perfuming the air with a distinct, and not always pleasant, chickeniness.

For more than a decade, hundreds of refugee and migrant families have arrived in Moorefield from the eastern African countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia, from Guatemala and from Myanmar (also known as Burma). They come to work at one of three Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plants in town. They come to be sorters, live hangers (a low-wage job, it requires shackling live birds upside-down) and line workers at Hardy County’s biggest employer. One of the largest chicken producers in the United States, Pilgrim’s Pride is majority-owned by JBS S.A., the largest meat processing company in the world.

“Everyone here who doesn’t have a high school education, that is their only job, that or the cabinet factory,” says Mary Jo Keller. “We just have those two things in Moorefield.”

The changes brought by the influx of Pilgrim’s workers has altered this historic town. Hardy County now has more students who speak English as a second language than anywhere else in the state. Keller has watched international restaurants pop up in this meat-and-potatoes town. She has watched the newcomers become integrated in the community, watched them tackle life milestones like learning to drive. Keller remembers witnessing a woman inexpertly pull to the curb, empathizing with her apparent frustration. “The woman got out and went down to the riverbank and a man came down and hugged her, then they got back into the car with him in the driver’s seat.”

A mailbox with a Trump 2020 campaign decal sits alongside a farm access road outside Moorefield, W.Va. Teacher Amy Lough helps a student from Guatemala learn English in a park that doubles as an outdoor classroom. Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign. Kathy Kellman, 7, walks across the parking lot of a flea market that happens every Saturday in this agricultural town. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A mailbox with a Trump 2020 campaign decal sits alongside a farm access road outside Moorefield, W.Va. Teacher Amy Lough helps a student from Guatemala learn English in a park that doubles as an outdoor classroom. Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign. Kathy Kellman, 7, walks across the parking lot of a flea market that happens every Saturday in this agricultural town. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A mailbox with a Trump 2020 campaign decal sits alongside a farm access road outside Moorefield, W.Va. Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign. Kathy Kellman, 7, walks across the parking lot of a flea market that happens every Saturday in this agricultural town. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A mailbox with a Trump 2020 campaign decal sits alongside a farm access road outside Moorefield, W.Va. Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign. Kathy Kellman, 7, walks across the parking lot of a flea market that happens every Saturday in this agricultural town. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Teacher Amy Lough helps a student from Guatemala learn English in a park that doubles as an outdoor classroom in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Teacher Amy Lough helps a student from Guatemala learn English in a park that doubles as an outdoor classroom in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A mailbox with a Trump 2020 campaign decal sits alongside a farm access road outside Moorefield, W.Va. Teacher Amy Lough helps a student from Guatemala learn English in a park that doubles as an outdoor classroom. Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign. Kathy Kellman, 7, walks across the parking lot of a flea market that happens every Saturday in this agricultural town. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)A mailbox with a Trump 2020 campaign decal sits alongside a farm access road outside Moorefield, W.Va. Main Street is reflected in a Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant sign. Kathy Kellman, 7, walks across the parking lot of a flea market that happens every Saturday in this agricultural town. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A church band practices at Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, where many of the Moorefield community's Latinos worship. Emerita Sorto, center, prepares Salvadoran specialties at her Pupuseria. Marina Whetzel and Pastor Mauricio Mena wait for parishioners to arrive at the Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, an evangelical church. A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield. Cing Nuam, left, and Cing Huai pray during an evangelical service at their home. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A church band practices at Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, where many of the Moorefield community's Latinos worship. Emerita Sorto, center, prepares Salvadoran specialties at her Pupuseria. Marina Whetzel and Pastor Mauricio Mena wait for parishioners to arrive at the Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, an evangelical church. A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield. Cing Nuam, left, and Cing Huai pray during an evangelical service at their home. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A church band practices at Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, where many of the Moorefield community's Latinos worship. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A church band practices at Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, where many of the Moorefield community's Latinos worship. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Marina Whetzel and Pastor Mauricio Mena wait for parishioners to arrive at the Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, an evangelical church. Emerita Sorto, center, prepares Salvadoran specialties at her Pupuseria.  A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Marina Whetzel and Pastor Mauricio Mena wait for parishioners to arrive at the Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, an evangelical church. Emerita Sorto, center, prepares Salvadoran specialties at her Pupuseria. A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Cing Nuam, left, and Cing Huai pray during an evangelical service at their home in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Cing Nuam, left, and Cing Huai pray during an evangelical service at their home in Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield, W.Va. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A church band practices at Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, where many of the Moorefield community's Latinos worship. Emerita Sorto, center, prepares Salvadoran specialties at her Pupuseria. Marina Whetzel and Pastor Mauricio Mena wait for parishioners to arrive at the Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, an evangelical church. A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield. Cing Nuam, left, and Cing Huai pray during an evangelical service at their home. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)Marina Whetzel and Pastor Mauricio Mena wait for parishioners to arrive at the Iglesia Pentecostal Hispana, an evangelical church. Emerita Sorto, center, prepares Salvadoran specialties at her Pupuseria. A traffic light is reflected in a traffic sign at an empty intersection in the center of Moorefield. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Rick Woodworth’s 800-acre ranch is about 20 miles from the Pilgrim’s Pride facilities, on the Virginia side of the mountain.

He’s anomalous in the ranching business. In a typical large-scale operation, a steer may go through five or six sets of hands before it reaches the grocery store or your plate. Woodworth owns the whole life cycle of his cattle, from birth to pasture grazing, to feedlot, to slaughter, to dry aging, then either direct-to-restaurant or direct-to-consumer.

Woodworth’s parents started ranching in the 1950s when his father got out of the service. Woodworth taught college-level animal science for 14 years before following his father into the family business.

“My wife and I both left the farm and came back. It’s a good life and a lot of work," he said. "My three kids understand the value of a dollar.”

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Rick Woodworth works in a hay barn at Flying W Farms in Burlington, W.Va., his 800-acre ranch about 20 miles from Pilgrim’s Pride. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

“I want to be in control of my destiny, not be on a contract to produce for Pilgrim’s Pride. We’ve chosen to go our own way and take our own risks.” — Rick Woodworth

Rick Woodworth works on his farm with his son, Will Woodworth. Above, Rick drives across a recently harvested cornfield on his farm.

Rick Woodworth, right, on his farm with his son, Don Woodworth, taught college-level animal science for 14 years before following his father into the family business.

Will Woodworth opens a barn door in preparation for cleaning at Flying W Farms.

For Woodworth, the pandemic has presented challenges but also opportunities. His 65-seat restaurant, where he sells burgers and hoagies, with prime-rib specials on the weekend, had to shut down for a while. But sales direct to consumers have stayed strong.

“Consumers have more awareness about the source of their product” since the pandemic, he says.

The virus has wreaked havoc on the industry’s supply chain, with some plants shutting down amid coronavirus outbreaks and work slowing to a trickle in others as safety measures were put in place. Commodity beef prices fell as ranchers searched for capacity at slaughterhouses.

But independent ranchers aren’t tied to the vicissitudes of the nation’s cattle auctions and Woodworth said his prices remained firm. “There’s a lot of talk about farm to table, but when the rubber meets the road it comes down to price,” he says. “I won’t change my price.”

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Black Angus cattle roam a recently harvested cornfield at the Woodworth family's farm. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Black Angus cattle at Flying W Farms are pasture raised until shortly before slaughter, when they are exclusively fed grain.

Sides of beef are hung to dry age at Flying W Farms.

Rick Woodworth opens a gate on his way to throw hay for some of his Black Angus cattle at Flying W Farms.

In the peak of harvest season this summer, Monterey County became an epicenter of the state’s coronavirus cases. A recent University of California at Berkeley study shows that 13 percent of Salinas Valley farmworkers tested positive for the virus between July and November, compared with about 3 percent of Californians overall.

Latino workers make up 93 percent of the state’s agricultural laborers, some H-2A visa workers from Mexico, but many more of them permanent residents or undocumented migrant workers. Unlike outbreaks in American meat processing facilities, farmworkers’ mobility and immigration status often made it hard to document how many of their lives were affected or curtailed by the virus.

Small farmers also have had trouble keeping enough workers to harvest what is frequently an ephemeral crop — a lag of even a few days can mean the difference between solvency and ruin. In California and elsewhere there were reports of fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields.

As the sunrises on the Salinas Valley, wildfire smoke is seen in the distant Los Padres Mountain range. Head Start Center supervisor and teacher Carmen Alvarez delivers an educational activity packet to a student's home. The Head Start Center provides preschool and elementary education to low-income families whose primary income is from agricultural production or harvesting. Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas. Farmworkers return to their community house. Customers choose pumpkins at The Farm Salinas. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
As the sunrises on the Salinas Valley, wildfire smoke is seen in the distant Los Padres Mountain range. Head Start Center supervisor and teacher Carmen Alvarez delivers an educational activity packet to a student's home. The Head Start Center provides preschool and elementary education to low-income families whose primary income is from agricultural production or harvesting. Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas. Farmworkers return to their community house. Customers choose pumpkins at The Farm Salinas. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
As the sunrises on the Salinas Valley, wildfire smoke is seen in the distant Los Padres Mountain range. Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas. Farmworkers return to their community house in the Salinas Valley. Customers choose pumpkins at The Farm Salinas. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
As the sunrises on the Salinas Valley, wildfire smoke is seen in the distant Los Padres Mountain range. Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas. Farmworkers return to their community house in the Salinas Valley. Customers choose pumpkins at The Farm Salinas. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Farmworkers return to their community house in the Salinas Valley. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Farmworkers return to their community house in the Salinas Valley. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
A student plays hopscotch on the playground at a migrant and seasonal Head Start Center in Salinas, Calif., where preschool and elementary education is provided to low-income families whose primary income is from agricultural production or harvesting. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
A student plays hopscotch on the playground at a migrant and seasonal Head Start Center in Salinas, Calif., where preschool and elementary education is provided to low-income families whose primary income is from agricultural production or harvesting. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
With the Head Start Center closed for 14 days because of the coronavirus, supervisor and teacher Carmen Alvarez delivers an educational activity packet to a student's home in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
With the Head Start Center closed for 14 days because of the coronavirus, supervisor and teacher Carmen Alvarez delivers an educational activity packet to a student's home in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

As the sunrises on the Salinas Valley, wildfire smoke is seen in the distant Los Padres Mountain range. Head Start Center supervisor and teacher Carmen Alvarez delivers an educational activity packet to a student's home. The Head Start Center provides preschool and elementary education to low-income families whose primary income is from agricultural production or harvesting. Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas. Farmworkers return to their community house. Customers choose pumpkins at The Farm Salinas. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post) As the sunrises on the Salinas Valley, wildfire smoke is seen in the distant Los Padres Mountain range. Teenage boys hang out on the corner in downtown Salinas. Farmworkers return to their community house in the Salinas Valley. Customers choose pumpkins at The Farm Salinas. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Retired farmworker Fernanda Quiroz, 82, cools off after working in her expansive garden at her home in Salinas, Calif. Eduardo Eizner holds therapy sessions over Zoom for dozens of field workers. The stress of the pandemic has landed so hard that many are accepting help for the first time, he said. “This community, these farmers, these Latino community, they’re a resilient people.” he said. “We need to be able to overcome covid-19 and any other challenges that we might encounter in the future.” Students are dropped off at the bus stop by their farmworker parents by 5:30 a.m. bound for a Head Start Center. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Retired farmworker Fernanda Quiroz, 82, cools off after working in her expansive garden at her home in Salinas, Calif. Eduardo Eizner holds therapy sessions over Zoom for dozens of field workers. The stress of the pandemic has landed so hard that many are accepting help for the first time, he said. “This community, these farmers, these Latino community, they’re a resilient people.” he said. “We need to be able to overcome covid-19 and any other challenges that we might encounter in the future.” Students are dropped off at the bus stop by their farmworker parents by 5:30 a.m. bound for a Head Start Center. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Students, who are dropped off at the bus stop by their farmworker parents by 5:30 a.m., are bound for a migrant and seasonal Head Start Center in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Students, who are dropped off at the bus stop by their farmworker parents by 5:30 a.m., are bound for a migrant and seasonal Head Start Center in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Retired farmworker Fernanda Quiroz, 82, cools off after working in her expansive garden at her home in Salinas, Calif. Eduardo Eizner holds therapy sessions over Zoom for dozens of field workers. The stress of the pandemic has landed so hard that many are accepting help for the first time, he said. “This community, these farmers, these Latino community, they’re a resilient people.” he said. “We need to be able to overcome covid-19 and any other challenges that we might encounter in the future.” (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Retired farmworker Fernanda Quiroz, 82, cools off after working in her expansive garden at her home in Salinas, Calif. Eduardo Eizner holds therapy sessions over Zoom for dozens of field workers. The stress of the pandemic has landed so hard that many are accepting help for the first time, he said. “This community, these farmers, these Latino community, they’re a resilient people.” he said. “We need to be able to overcome covid-19 and any other challenges that we might encounter in the future.” (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Fields are watered on a morning as fog mixes with smoke from a nearby wildfire in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Fields are watered on a morning as fog mixes with smoke from a nearby wildfire in Salinas, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Retired farmworker Fernanda Quiroz, 82, cools off after working in her expansive garden at her home in Salinas, Calif. Eduardo Eizner holds therapy sessions over Zoom for dozens of field workers. The stress of the pandemic has landed so hard that many are accepting help for the first time, he said. “This community, these farmers, these Latino community, they’re a resilient people.” he said. “We need to be able to overcome covid-19 and any other challenges that we might encounter in the future.” Students are dropped off at the bus stop by their farmworker parents by 5:30 a.m. bound for a Head Start Center. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)Retired farmworker Fernanda Quiroz, 82, cools off after working in her expansive garden at her home in Salinas, Calif. Eduardo Eizner holds therapy sessions over Zoom for dozens of field workers. The stress of the pandemic has landed so hard that many are accepting help for the first time, he said. “This community, these farmers, these Latino community, they’re a resilient people.” he said. “We need to be able to overcome covid-19 and any other challenges that we might encounter in the future.” (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Rigoberto Bucio, 32, grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, and came to the United States on his own at age 16.

“I needed a job and people were refusing me work because of my age. I got a job with one of the ALBA farmers, growing strawberries, zucchini and tomatoes,” he said of the nonprofit farm education and business incubator program. “I had no prior knowledge about farming and vegetables, other than how to eat them. I realized there wasn’t much opportunity doing what I was doing, working on someone else’s land, so I enrolled in the program at ALBA.”

Bucio now owns 12 acres where he farms organic celery, lettuces, kale and broccoli, which he sells to Coke Farm. It is his children who inspired him to farm organically, despite having fewer tools available to fight weeds and disease: “It’s what keeps me motivated. It’s healthy and free of pesticides. I want my kids to eat healthy.”

But with the past few years’ farm labor shortage heightened by fears about the coronavirus, Bucio didn’t have enough workers this year and lost much of his harvest. “Since I couldn’t harvest some crops, I couldn’t sell them. But I have two wonderful kids, 8 and 11, who keep me motivated,” Bucio said through a translator.

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Organic farmer Rigoberto Bucio takes a call from a fellow farmer while plowing a field on his farm in Salinas, Calif. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“It’s hard labor and a daily battle to care for a living organism that has different needs. It’s not the same as overseeing a bunch of batteries or a bunch of tires.” — Rigoberto Bucio

Rigoberto Bucio waters his kale fields.

Rigoberto Bucio, right, secures boxes of kale for delivery on his farm in Salinas.

Farmworkers weed a celery field on Rigoberto Bucio's farm.

Members of the West Virginia National Guard began testing workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plants in Moorefield for the coronavirus in May, revealing a small number of positive cases. Hardy County kept the virus largely at bay until mid-November, when the state began to routinely see more than 1,000 new cases daily.

This summer, Mary Jo Keller and her son, Chris, wore masks when they went to town, washed their hands after they went to the store. Petersburg, in nearby Grant County, was hit hard, so they stayed away. Now they spend most of their time on the farm in the house they built in 1953, living off Mary Jo’s Social Security and Moorefield High School librarian’s pension. There used to be nine dairies in this little valley that covers three counties. For about 16 years, Chris Keller’s was the only one left, a tanker coming from Oakland, Md., to pick up his milk each week.

“On December 17th, 2017, they wrote him a letter to say they couldn’t afford to make the trip for his one tank of milk,” Mary Jo remembers. “He still will not quit milking. He brings a gallon bucket home every other day. He drinks most of it. Store-bought milk doesn’t even taste like milk. Whatever he doesn’t drink or give away he dumps down the drain. As soon as my son graduated high school, he went to a school for artificial insemination. He’s bred every one of those cows. I say, ‘You’ve just got cows in your blood, quit before you ruin your health.’ ”

Mary Jo’s father and grandfather were in the cattle business. Her husband of 67 years, Robert Keller, was a dairyman on this land before he died four years ago. They had three sons but knew they couldn’t all make a living on the farm — two went out of state to college and Chris stayed. Chris has lost money the past two years on the small amount of corn and hay he grows, and he and his mother expect this year will be even worse because of the pandemic.

“The government should have helped the farmers by getting after these big corporations taking all the money and cutting out the dairy farmers. I can’t tell you how many dairy farmers committed suicide,” Mary Jo said. “Farming is just a sad state of affairs.”

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Mary Jo Keller, 90, spends most of her time on the farm with her son, Chris, where they live off Mary Jo’s Social Security and librarian’s pension. (Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

“Chris doesn’t want to go somewhere else or do something else. At his age he shouldn’t have to.” — Mary Jo Keller

Chris Keller looks out at his dairy herd from the milking room at the family's farm in Moorefield, W.Va. He keeps the pistol handy in case he needs to scare bears away.

Chris Keller loads the feeders for his dairy cows at the family's farm.

Birds fly over the Keller family's dairy farm.

In Monterey County, the average farm size is 1,000 acres.

By comparison, Javier Zamora, who farms about 100 acres on a few different plots, is tiny. But with 45 employees, he was large enough to be approved for a $130,000 PPP loan and a $72,000 Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payment, which he doesn’t have to pay back.

“Our local politicians fought to get specialty crops eligible for CFAP,” said Zamora, 55. “If that had not happened, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Raised in Michoacán, Mexico, he came to Los Angeles when he was 20, first working in the restaurant industry and buying rental properties, which he lost in the housing crisis. He moved to Watsonville and attended Cabrillo College and worked for a fresh-cut flower grower.

When he started farming for himself in 2012, it was just him and his wife working an acre and a half of strawberries, beets, carrots and flowers. As his business grew, nearly all of his product was sold to restaurants, independently owned grocery stores and the school lunch program, with a tiny bit going to farmers markets.

The coronavirus has complicated the day-to-day operation of his business, but he says there’s only so much he can do.

“Initially we were scared because we didn’t know how it was going to pan out, we stayed as a family, as a pod,” Zamora said. “But anyone who thinks we can be socially distanced when we work the land is full of baloney. The way it is designed, you are shoulder-to-shoulder.”

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Salinas Valley organic farmer Javier Zamora was raised in Michoacán, Mexico and came to Los Angeles when he was 20, first working in the restaurant industry and buying rental properties, which he lost in the housing crisis. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“Yes, I am the boss and I lead the operation, but it’s all about how you behave and what you think of humans. When I was a farmworker myself, they made me feel I was worth very little.” — Javier Zamora

Javier Zamora takes business calls with his customers while walking his fields in Royal Oaks, Calif.

Javier Zamora picks up his farmworkers from a berry field in Royal Oaks, Calif.

In the Salinas Valley, one in five households relies on jobs in the agricultural sector. For Zamora and his wife, strawberries were a significant source of their income this spring, most of them purchased by restaurants and schools.

“The school district sent me a letter that they weren’t going to be buying any when schools shut down,” he said. “I started selling them to a processor for like a tenth of what I usually sell them for. The local news came out and they saw a zillion strawberries, so a few families got together and started ordering every week from me. That helped a lot.”

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Javier Zamora prepares to have lunch with his wife, Paula, in Royal Oaks, Calif. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Javier Zamora gives a bunch of freshly picked flowers to his mother-in-law. Zamora grows a large variety of flowers on his approximately 110 acres of farmable land.

There are about 2 million operating farms in the United States. In 1935, that number was nearly 7 million. And still, the productivity of crop farms in the American heartland region increased 64 percent between 1982 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The future of farming is filled with the promises of artificial intelligence, robotics and gene-edited crops more effective at fighting disease and pests.

Small specialty crop farmers and ranchers lack much of the federal safety net that has developed to support commodity farmers through natural disasters, poor planting years, trade wars and low commodity prices. The pandemic has left many of them similarly underserved by relief efforts and assistance.

And yet, small farmers and ranchers have shown resilience, bending but not breaking in the face of supply-chain bottlenecks and collapsed revenue streams. When coronavirus outbreaks shut down some of the country’s largest meat processing facilities, leaving grocery store shelves sparse, independent ranchers and butchers forged new direct-to-consumer business models. Fruit and vegetable growers, many of them sole proprietors or small family ventures, pivoted similarly to find viable new markets. Their story is about a perilous kind of entrepreneurship that depends upon soil, sun and improvised solutions.

correction

A previous version of this report included a map that incorrectly located Moorefield, W.Va.

About the story

Story editing by Renae Merle. Additional editing by Courtney Kan and Nick Kirkpatrick. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld. Graphics by Hannah Dormido. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Design and development by Cece Pascual. Design editing by Matthew Callahan.

Laura Reiley is the business of food reporter. She was previously a food critic at the Tampa Bay Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun. She has authored four books, has cooked professionally and is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. She is a two-time James Beard finalist and in 2017 was a Pulitzer finalist.
Melina Mara is a staff photographer at The Washington Post.
Michael Robinson Chávez, a staff photographer, recently won a Pulitzer Prize awarded to The Washington Post Staff for 2C: Beyond the Limit, a deep look at global climate change. In 2018 he was awarded a Robert F. Kennedy Award for coverage of problems created by the drug trade plaguing Mexico.