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Texas specialty crops hit hard by COVID-19

The Texas specialty crop sector -consisting primarily of fruits and vegetables- has been one of the hardest hit sectors of agriculture due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to agricultural economists, industry groups and agricultural producers.  

“Most fruits and vegetables are consumed when fresh and are highly perishable commodities,” said Joe Outlaw, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist and co-director of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center, AFPC, at Texas A&M University, College Station. “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of most restaurants and schools has caused a major reduction in demand for produce. The pandemic has also caused significant disruptions to the supply chain and agricultural systems.”

Outlaw said while some of that reduction in demand from restaurants and other food-service outlets has translated to higher demand at grocery stores, different packaging requirements, changes in volume needed, other factors are affecting fresh produce prices, mainly at the farmgate level.

A recent report by the AFPC on how the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected Texas agricultural production indicates if the pandemic persists, Texas fruit and vegetable producers could be left without outlets for their highly perishable products and ultimately lose more than $397 million.

Fruit and vegetable producers in South Texas have experienced anywhere between a 20% to 50% reduction in sales. Additionally, imports of fruits and vegetables from Mexico went down 18% in April, so the demand is still low for both domestic and imported produce.

Many producers are struggling to find outlets for their produce and many grocery stores have  significantly reduced the variety of items they stock, both of which have had a serious impact on Texas specialty crop producers.

“Right now, we’re down to about 50% production,” said Brandon Laffere, co-owner of L&L Farms in Batesville, which produces lettuce, cabbage, spinach, broccoli and other specialty crops. “We took the biggest hit with lettuce since that is more perishable and our food service outlets weren’t ordering it.”   

Now, Laffere said, they are growing summer crops, including squash and watermelon, but are still uncertain as to how much of those they will be able to sell once harvested.

“Our biggest challenge is the unknown, but we’re optimistic things will get better,” he said.

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