The declaration of a pandemic affects every industry, whether it’s sales in retail stores, surging need for healthcare workers, or anything in between.
In the case of the coronavirus, Americans responded to the news of a pandemic by stocking up on groceries and other household essentials as they prepared for the unknown. Behind the scenes of this “panic shopping,” however, are the farmers hit the hardest.
Michigan farmer and head of the Michigan Farmers Union, Bob Thompson, explained the impact on farmers: “Not knowing is hard to take: not knowing whether or not you’re going to have a market for a crop and not knowing the extent of the virus and the resulting economic impact across the board.”
COVID-19 is reaching its peak in America just as the agriculture industry approaches its planting season. And unlike many government orders to “pause,” farmers can’t delay their schedules.
Coronavirus Restrictions Mean Fewer Crop Pickers
Even in our industrialized age, most fruit and vegetable farms rely on human pickets to bring crops to harvest. Even in normal times, farmers face a shortage of pickers.
“A couple of years ago we had a decent crop, and getting enough labor to pick the cherries and process was even a problem then,” explained Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation in California. “This is something we’ve never had to deal with, a pandemic of this nature.”
Farmers are concerned that the pandemic may interfere with their hiring process for seasonal workers, especially since so many pickers are seasonally employed from Mexico. With U.S consulates closed in Mexico until further notice, workers can’t obtain the H-2A visas they need to work in the U.S. Farmers fear their crops could rot in the fields without sufficient workers to pick them on schedule.
Without Direct Sales to Restaurants and Schools, Farms Are Suffering
Restaurants and schools were some of the first locations forced to close nationwide. The impacts on teachers, students, restaurant owners, and servers have been well documented, but not as many people realize the devastating domino effect for farmers as well.
Many farmers and ranchers rely on direct sales of their crops to restaurants and schools. Without these sites open, the farmers can’t sell their products and find themselves with a surplus of crops and no immediate revenue.
This is especially true for dairy farmers. School lunch programs are halted until the pandemic passes, but those food programs account for nearly 9 percent of milk sales. That leaves farmers with an unusual surplus of milk and nowhere to sell it.
“Milk production is not something that can stop once it’s going,” says Michael Nepveu, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. If market trends don’t change, farmers will be forced to dump their milk.
In fact, the USDA has already addressed milk dumping: “USDA’s Risk Management Agency is ensuring that milk producers are not inappropriately penalized if their milk must be dumped because of recent market disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”
The bottom line? Panic buying at the grocery stores isn’t enough to sustain farmers in the face of restaurant, school, store, and hospitality closures. Farmers are looking to the federal government’s crop and cattle insurance programs to protect them during these uncertain times, while working to prepare for what the future may hold.