Agro experts: US growers must diversify in post-pandemic world

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, few industries have been quite as essential to the nation as agriculture. From pickers crouching for nine hours a day to scoop up strawberries to CEOs making handshake deals to keep their companies afloat, hundreds of thousands of workers are feeding America. But, in many ways, the pandemic is forcing farmers to reevaluate how they do business.

Across California, nearly 60% of farmers have lost significant revenue, washing their milk down drains, beefing their dairy cows and ploughing under their lettuce and other crops, according to surveys carried out by the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Monterey County Office of Agriculture.

As a result, industry leaders say they expect to see shifts in the way growers do business. One priority will be finding new markets for their products, such as farm boxes sold directly to consumers.

The pandemic “has changed the food supply chain for our country in ways we could never have imagined before in terms of restaurants and schools being closed, “ said U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, who is a Central Valley almond farmer. “In the last 30 years, we’ve developed a complicated supply chain…This is a new wrinkle. We’re in uncharted waters. Those that adapt are the ones that are able to succeed.”

Produce agriculture is dominated by large companies that handle cooling, packing and shipping of produce. They contract with smaller farmers to provide a certain amount of pallets or cartons of berries, lettuce or carrots; those, in turn, are harvested and packaged by farmworkers.

Their labor keeps the farms running, but where food goes after it has left pickers’ hands is a complicated web, weaving through packing houses, cooling plants, refrigerated trucks, planes, CSAs, the foodservice industry and grocery store shelves.

And farmers have lost income as different avenues of revenue have been shut down or cut off. California’s $50 billion farming industry has taken a significant hit.

More than half of growers surveyed by the California Farm Bureau Federation said that they had lost customers or sales due to COVID-19. In addition, nearly half said they or someone in their immediate family had lost income from an off-farm job.

“Many thousands of tons of good produce were lost,” said Western Growers’ Association President Dave Puglia. Although a lot of the produce went to food banks, still more was ploughed under or sent to landfill. “I’ve heard a lot of people saying, ‘That’s good food, how can you let it go to waste?’” Puglia said. “We’re trying, but the infrastructure can’t handle that quickly, especially with cooling requirements.”

In Texas, home to a $22-billion agricultural industry, Texas A&M University researchers estimated farmers could lose between $6 and $8 billion due to the pandemic.

Across the U.S., farmers will lose $20 billion in net income this year, according to an updated economics report published last month by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

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