Through this challenging time for all of us, we have been bringing you weekly roundups of how the pandemic is affecting agriculture around the state. We have a few more of these stories here for you again today.
Most farmers responding to a California Farm Bureau survey reported they had lost sales or customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the voluntary survey, 57% said they had seen sales drop, mainly due to stay-at-home orders that reduced restaurant demand. Another 42% of respondents to the survey said they or a family member had seen their off-farm income decline.
The economic impacts of the pandemic include a drop in home construction, which has hurt sales of timber. One California sawmill operator says he has had to cut production in half as a result. Though housing starts have dropped, market analysts say lumber sales at home-improvement stores have been rising, as people take on remodeling projects, including conversion of rooms into home offices.
The flow of U.S. farm exports to China has increased since the two nations signed a “Phase 1” trade agreement in January, but an American Farm Bureau Federation analysis says sales to China have so far not kept pace with commitments in the agreement. The COVID-19 pandemic has played a role, AFBF says, in part because it has slowed U.S. meat processing for export.
Why Are Farmers Destroying Crops While Store Shelves Are Empty?
By Pam Kan-Rice UCANR Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach
Empty grocery store shelves are troubling enough to California consumers who are accustomed to abundant supplies. To hear about farmers dumping milk, crushing eggs and plowing under crops when demand for food is strong just doesn’t make sense to most consumers.
Although the new coronavirus crisis has currently derailed the connection between supply and demand, “the food system in the United States is resilient and there is little reason for alarm about food availability,” write University of California agricultural economists.
Overall, neither food consumption nor the amount of food supplied by farms have changed much, they write in a new article published by UC’s Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. The authors explain that the sudden closure of schools, restaurants and other institutions, coupled with residents in many states sheltering in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, has disrupted normal patterns of where people buy food.
“Price changes, surpluses and shortages along the food supply chain are likely the result of recent and temporary shocks to supply, demand or both,” said co-author Ellen Bruno, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley.
“On the demand side, we have seen customers shift to buying more food at the grocery store as restaurants and other food service businesses have closed. Plus, consumers have changed what they consume and stockpile during these times,” she said.
Initially, worried consumers stocked up on staples such as rice and pasta that store well. Then, with more free time, they started cooking at home and baking their own bread and pastries, buying up eggs, flour, sugar and other baking supplies.
“On the supply side, there are challenges in trying to rearrange production and packaging to service grocery stores, as opposed to restaurants, schools, etc. which often purchase items in different quantities,” Bruno said. “Plus, there are the obvious health concerns and potential disruptions due to the impact of the virus on the workers themselves.”
How quickly the food supply system will adapt to changing demand depends on the product, according to Bruno and her co-authors Richard J. Sexton, UC Davis professor, and Daniel A. Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center and UC Davis professor, both in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics.
Canned fruits and vegetables are often processed shortly after harvest and can be moved from storage to retail fairly quickly. To increase egg production, farmers have to add to the number of laying hens, which takes months. Many perishable produce items are planted, harvested, packed and shipped according to a precise schedule to replenish grocery store inventories “just in time” so farmers can’t quickly increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables they supply.
Produce wholesalers who sell to food service have products and packaging specifically designed for that market. For example, packing plants that prepare large bulk salad packages for restaurants aren’t set up to pack salad into retail-ready bags that require consumer labels. While adjustments were made, some fresh produce rotted or was plowed under.
After the COVID-19 disruption ends, the authors expect the food supply chain to evolve as the economy gradually recovers.
“In the longer term, even after restaurants and the food service industry are back and running, reduced incomes due to the recession will change our consumption patterns,” Bruno said. “Demand for food consumed at home doesn’t change much with income, but demand for food at restaurants does. In many ways, food service and the growers that supply directly to food service will be hardest hit by all of this because they suffer both in the short run with mandatory closures and in the long run with an economic recession.”
Although it’s uncertain how long the pandemic will last, the authors say Americans will have an adequate supply of safe, healthy food.
“Despite these disruptions, overall our food supply chain is robust and adaptable,” Bruno said. “Nothing in the underlying economics suggests that there will be a lack of food available.”
Recent weeks have been tough for the restaurant and food service industries, and for the farmers that supply them. This could not come at a worse time for the California lemon industry, who harvests this time of year and relies on these markets.
Chris Sayer is a lemon producer in Ventura County. “It’s raining. Hopefully this delay of a week will allow them to start to clear the packing house out and then maybe we can get moving on selling some fruit. About half the lemons go to restaurants. And witch that shut down and this being the peak of lemon harvest season, basically all the storage is at capacity and they can’t pick more unless they sell or dump something to get things moving again.”
Without restaurant demand and very little processing or long term storage capability, packers and producers like Chris are left with very few options.
“Usually Ventura County gets picked over the course of about six or eight weeks. I mean, we’re already a little bit behind.,” said Sayer. “I would say that I’ve probably got two more weeks before we start losing fruit, either just from dropping or just sort of gets overripe. And of course, even once we get it harvested and into storage, you know, prices are awful at the moment.”
Sayer knows it won’t be a good year for lemons, but hopes that he can at least get something for harvesting a crop.
How is California agriculture adapting to the new reality of COVID-19 and social distancing?
Small farms that lost business from restaurants and other food-service clients have been looking for alternative customers or business models. More farms now offer food-box options for pickup or delivery, and a number have collaborated with other farms to lend variety to their food-box offerings. Some farms have also tried e-commerce as a potential way to expand their customer base.
Shelf-stable foods such as canned peaches and pears have seen demand leap during the pandemic. The head of the California Canning Peach Association says retail demand the past month has been “unprecedented.” Processors have changed their operations to replenish depleted store shelves and ship products quickly to retail customers. School districts are using fruit cups in the “grab and go” school meals they provide to students.
The pandemic has brought a sharp shift in demand at retail nurseries and garden centers. Sales of landscaping plants have slumped, but sales of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and other edible plants have skyrocketed. Nurseries say many of their sales have been to first-time gardeners who hope to avoid trips to the supermarket by growing more of their own food.
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) is sharing information to inform retail and foodservice customers, as well as consumers, that activities in place to ensure the safety of leafy greens are fully operational during this rapidly changing COVID-19 situation.
“First and foremost, we want to assure people that LGMA audits conducted by state government personnel are continuing as usual,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the LGMA. “Audits are scheduled for the desert growing areas as the season wraps up there and will move with the harvest to the central valley and central coast regions.”
Horsfall noted that producing, harvesting and shipping of ag products are considered essential services and the requirements being placed by the federal and state governments recognize that food industries must continue to provide healthy food to the nation’s consumers.
“We are asking auditors and members to take all precautions necessary,” he said. “This is a rapidly changing situation, but when it comes to LGMA audits, they are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.If anything changes the LGMA will keep people updated.”
Over 90% of the leafy greens consumed in the U.S. are produced under the LGMA food safety program. On average each member company of the LGMA is audited by the government five times per year to verify food safety practices are being followed on leafy greens farms.
The LGMA has also issued information to several stakeholder audiences explaining the efforts in place under the LGMA program in the area of health and human hygiene.
“While all public health officials are emphasizing there is no evidence that fresh produce or any other food can transmit the virus, we think it’s important that people understand what happens on our farms each and every day,” said Horsfall.
Some of the measures in place through the LGMA to ensure the safety of leafy greens include:
Bathroom and handwashing facilities are required to be present anytime harvest crews are working in leafy greens fields.
Bathrooms must be clean and must always have water, soap, toilet paper, hand drying towels. Hand sanitizers are also provided on many farms.
Workers must wash hands before and after breaks or whenever they use the bathroom.
LGMA member companies who grow leafy greens are required to train workers on the required practices, including how to properly wash their hands. The LGMA provides a hand-washing training that is free to download. Use your smartphone for access: English iOS | Spanish iOS
People who are sick are not allowed to come into contact with leafy greens products.
No one is allowed to consume food, chew tobacco or spit near leafy greens fields.
Harvest equipment and tools must be sanitized regularly.
Member companies of the LGMA are audited by government officials to verify these required practices are being followed. During on-farm visits, government auditors observe activities of work crews to make sure they understand and follow required hygiene practices. The auditors will test workers’ knowledge by speaking to them directly asking questions such as, “Did your employer check with you today to make sure you weren’t feeling ill before you began work?”
Last, but not least, the LGMA is working with the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) and its team of registered dietitians to encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables, like leafy greens, and to inform people about the safety measures in place on farms. PBH has just published a post titled Remain Calm and Eat Your Leafy Greens, by Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND. PBH is sharing this information via its popular ‘Have a Plant’ social media channels.