Specialty crop growers are concerned about the lingering market and labor impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and say the virus will have an outsized impact on this growing season and seasons to come.
On a recent webinar hosted by the Farm Credit Council, growers from across the country said COVID-19 has made an already untenable labor situation worse.
Savannah Gillis-Turner is a contracted onion grower in Arrey, N.M., where the growing season started last week.
She typically has a list spanning three full pages of naturalized immigrants wanting to pack vegetables in her onion shed; this year, it's been reduced to a page and a half.
“I’ll even say a page to be generous,” Gillis-Turner said. “People are afraid to go outside and to go back to work.”
Most of her onions are sold to Walmart stores, with a smaller percentage sold on the open market.
“A decision will have to be made on how we keep producing 'x' amount to fulfill our contracts with Walmart while working with less individuals in our facility,” she said.
Sean Gilbert, a Washington fruit grower, said he has already had to rip up 8% of his apple orchards. He said planning for the arrival of H-2A workers has been difficult in his area because of state rulemaking "that's changing by the day, by the week," and the ongoing tweaks make it difficult to plan how he will be able to harvest apples and other tree fruits.
The "emergency COVID-19 rules for agricultural workers" requires operators to educate workers about COVID-19, implement six-feet distancing measures in housing and workspaces along with disinfecting, and create isolation areas for sick workers.
“We’re still not sure if we’re going to be able to bring up the workers we intend to bring up,” he added.
Gilbert was anticipating getting 300 H-2A workers for this harvest, but he might only be able to bring up about 150.
He also noted since having to put social distancing measures in place in his packing house, costs have gone up.
“We’re doing a great job of keeping people safe, but it comes at a cost. We’re seeing our cost per unit is up about 40% on our packing lines,” Gilbert said.
Florida lettuce grower Toby Basore of Belle Glade was luckier than Gilbert and Gillis-Turner, as most of his labor had arrived before COVID-19 restrictions started. However, he is concerned how many workers will be able to come back next year, especially if U.S. offices in Mexico are unable to process H-2A applicants in the near future.
Gary Van Schuyver, senior vice president at American Ag Credit — which provides ag loans and other financial services to producers in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Oklahoma — said increased costs are significant.
“When you start spacing out crews and putting in workstations and trying to make sure you have adequate transportation in and out that you can social distance people, it’s exponential,” Schuyver said.
All three producers, who spoke on the Farm Credit Council webinar last week, said they appreciate programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, but want to see fixes moving forward.
For instance, Gilbert said there are some structural issues with the food box program.
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“A lot of the money doesn’t go back to the producers, it is getting absorbed in the wholesale markets,” he said. He argues producers are having to compete against each other to get business when there are no markets abroad.
He also was disappointed apples were not included in CFAP; USDA has said it will allow for additional commodities to state their case for inclusion.
Basore would like to see the payment limitations in CFAP increased.
“I think the cap is $250,000; some growers lost that in a day,” Basore said. He also joins a host of other businesses in calling for a longer window of time to allocate PPP funds. The current limit is eight weeks.
Regulatory hurdles aside, Gilbert, Basore, and Gillis-Turner are all concerned about the return of market demand from consumers in the coming months, but they noted they have no intention to decrease acreage for next year just because of the COVID-19 market impacts they are seeing today.
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