My family produces enough beef to feed our whole town. I’m ashamed that we’re running out of fresh food ourselves.

Covid 19 essay: I produce beef for a living. I'm running out of fresh food myself.

Monica Gokey

I once scorned my grandmother’s basement of Mason-jarred produce. Now I understand why she thought it was so important.

A week into our family’s coronavirus quarantine in rural Idaho, I took stock of our fridge. A wilted head of broccoli rolled around in one of the produce drawers alongside two shriveled bell peppers.

If our family of five was going to keep eating vegetables at dinner, we’d have to make a trip to the grocery store. 

The sorry head of broccoli reminded me of the previous summer, when I’d left at least five heads of perfectly ripe broccoli on their stalks in our garden. They flowered yellow, then withered in place, unharvested—a shameful act for someone who comes from a long line of women who never wasted food. 

After my grandmother passed away and we cleaned out her home in central Montana, we found hundreds of jars of home-canned food in her cellar. To my 20-something eye it was the lunacy of a 90-something woman with a food-hoarding habita sad kingdom of Mason jars. Pandemic Me sees it differently. My grandmother’s food cache was insurance against the hard times that would inevitably come, as they already had several times during her life as a mother of nine.

3 people on horseback trailing down side of a hill April 2020

The author and her family, pictured here, sell beef in the fall—once the grass in west-central Idaho turns brown and it becomes uneconomical to carry cattle through the season.

Monica Gokey

I know better than to waste food. I am one of America’s food-growers, dammit. We raise enough beef to supply every burger chain in our town for at least a year. I can milk a cow and doctor a chicken. I should be the last person to run out of fresh food. 

As soon as a stay-at-home order was issued in our state, I got a trickle of texts from some of our beef customers. Meat was their broccoli—the item they wanted and did not have.

I can sometimes scrape together a beef share in March, but I’d have to invest in some serious freezer space to truly offer beef for sale year-round. We sell beef every fall, when the grass turns brown and winter feed costs make it uneconomical to carry cows through another season. Sometimes our customers forget. So much of our food system is built on the idea that we can have any kind of food at any time of the year—but food is seasonal. That goes for beef as well as broccoli.

So much of our food system is built on the idea that we can have any kind of food at any time of the year—but food is seasonal.

If I’d blanched and frozen my surplus garden haul during the summer, I wouldn’t be lamenting my freezer situation now, devoid of all things green. (Chock full of beef, though.) 

My husband made a final (enormous) run to the grocery store before our family started quarantine in earnest. Soon after, I pulled out my bag of seeds, raided the worm bin for compost, and started several flats of seedlings with an eye for which plants would put the most food on our table. Tomatoes and watermelons tempt me every year, but in our cool climate, it’s the squashes, the root vegetables, and the brassicas (leafy green things) that I can count on for yield.

Coronavirus will hopefully have passed by the time I harvest a single squash. But I owe the pandemic for seeding me with the same worry my grandma lived with… “What if we run out of fresh food?” 

I need only look at my little flats of sprouting seedlings to know that the choice is mine. I can provide for my family if I want to. 

Monica Gokey was a public radio journalist in Alaska before she and her husband moved to his family's cattle ranch in west-central Idaho. She still writes and makes radio, but most of her time is spent wrangling kids, fixing fence, and clucking adoringly at her chickens.