Connecting state and local government leaders
Faced with a supply chain disrupted by the coronavirus, agriculture departments and farm bureaus are striving to connect farmers with food banks and potential buyers.
While lines at food banks stretch for blocks and shelves at grocery stores sit bare, farmers are plowing over fresh vegetables and tossing out milk because they can’t easily redirect their products to desperate consumers.
The situation could be economically devastating for small farms whose primary market is local restaurants and institutions like schools. Many are facing a more than 50% drop in business this year due to dried-up demand.
“It’s really frustrating to go to the grocery store and see them setting limits on volumes of milk you can buy and knowing that farms are out there dumping it out,” says Veronica Nigh, an economist for the Maryland Farm Bureau. But, she adds, half of all food in the U.S. is consumed outside the home. When that outlet is almost entirely shut down, it’s not easy to pivot.
“The food supply is safe,” says Nigh, “but there are certain logistical roles between the supply and consumer that are difficult to overcome over in such a short period of time.”
Making matters worse is a shortage of labor in processing plants. Major producers like Smithfield and Tyson Foods are warning of pork shortages as several plants have been shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers.
State departments of agriculture and farm bureaus are scrambling to fill the void. Some, like the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the San Diego County Farm Bureau, are creating distribution lists and actively connecting growers to new buyers. Others are directly inserting themselves in the supply chain to help with logistics, such as by purchasing directly from farms on behalf of local food banks or institutions like prison systems and hospitals. In Maui, Hawaii, the county farm bureau is spending $20,000 each week to purchase and deliver produce to local food banks.
Some small farms are swiftly moving to adapt. In Smithsburg, Maryland, Ivy Hill Farm owners Steve and Karen Martin are taking care to stock their greenhouse this year in anticipation of more demand for starter plants from those who will want to grow their own food. They are also buying produce from other small farms to sell in their market and have expanded their buying pool for high-demand products like eggs. “We’ve sold more eggs in a day than we normally do in a week,” Steve Martin says.
The small market run by the Martins has taken precautions like having hand sanitizer on hand and installing a plastic sheet to separate customers from the cashier, who is wearing gloves. But Nigh notes that having a retail front isn’t a cure-all for farms because much depends on the local population.
Community-supported agriculture, or consumers getting food boxes direct from farms, are seeing a surge in interest, according to the California Farm Bureau. Some farms expect a doubling of their CSA business, which will help take some of the sting out of declines in wholesale, direct sales and farmers market sales.
Nationally, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes some $9.5 billion in disaster relief for specialty crop producers, livestock producers, and producers who supply local food systems. It also adds $14 billion to the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, which would allow the agency to provide more direct aid to producers. But much is still unknown about how and when the money will be distributed. It also doesn’t directly address the supply chain problem.
How produce farms will ultimately be affected depends on a lot of factors like whether their main crop is primarily sold fresh or canned, and what time of year they harvest. For example, tomato volumes in Florida, where farms primarily sell to restaurants, are down by as much as 85%. Farms that grow products for canning aren’t hit as hard. In some cases, such as at McCall Farms in South Carolina, they are seeing increases in demand.
At dairy farms, however, the impact is almost unilateral. The Dairy Farmers of America estimates that farmers nationwide are dumping nearly four million gallons of milk each day as cold storage facilities fill up and processing plants face a shortage of workers. This also affects the supply of butter and cheese.
Livestock producers can technically hold onto their product, but they’re still facing steep losses with the fallen demand. Cattle producers are especially vulnerable as beef (compared with pork or chicken) is more often consumed in restaurants. In early April, cattle futures were down 30% in anticipation of drying-up demand.
When it comes to farms that harvest later this year, all they can do for the moment is worry. At Ivy Hill, where thousands of peach and apple trees just finished blossoming, Martin says the summer festival season is a major market for his product.
“If this isn't over by then,” he says, “I don’t know what the impact is going to be.”