Right now, MILLIONS of pounds of fresh vegetables are going to waste.
The coronavirus pandemic has almost completely shut down the hospitality industry. Because people are mostly staying at home, restaurants are either closed or have switched completely to takeout or delivery. And when sales are down, orders are down.
It’s more than just restaurants. Farmer’s markets, school cafeterias, amusement parks, airlines, hotels, cruise ships…these are all regular customers that aren’t buying right now. And there’s only so much produce that stores can handle, even with increasing online grocery orders from homebound customers.
That means farmers are stuck with food they can’t sell, and that’s a problem. Unlike processed agricultural products such as sugar or flour, fresh vegetables have a very small window of saleability. They must be harvested, packaged, and sold quickly…or not at all.
Toni DiMare, third-generation tomato farmer in Florida, says, “You’re dealing with a perishable product. The clock is ticking.”
What Happens to Unsold Food?
As they do every season, farmers are donating a portion of their crops to food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens. Because there are so few buyers this season, the donations are larger than ever. But because so many people are out of work or underemployed, those donations are needed more than ever, too. Sometimes, the lines to receive boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables are hours-long.
Even the demand hasn’t put an appreciable dent in the unplanned surplus. Bins are overflowing, and there is still so much produce left unharvested. What isn’t being sold and can’t be given away will simply be plowed over and turned into mulch.
Why Must the Crops be Destroyed?
Paid by how much they pick, workers can make close to $20 an hour during a normal harvest time. But without buyers, it would be a waste to pay them that much. The produce would just rot after it was picked.
The field work needed to simply raze the crops, however, only pays minimum wage. It would cost farmers twice as much to harvest them, all for nothing. And when you are talking about thousands of acres and millions of pounds of tomatoes…or green beans…or cabbage…that’s a lot of money. Money that is in devastatingly short supply when this year’s produce can’t be sold.
It’s a no-brainer economic decision — turn the crops into mulch and try to hang on until next harvest.
The ripple-effect of the coronavirus crisis is impacting farmers across the country, and the ultimate economic repercussions are unknown. In the Pacific Northwest alone, the American Farmland Trust estimates that local food systems could lose as much as $1.3 billion.
They are recommending that farmers should temporarily adjust their business model — set up an online shop, or offer home deliveries, for example. Small tweaks like this may be just enough to help some struggling farms keep their doors open.
To assist with that, the AFT has set up the Farmer’s Relief Fund, which gives eligible farmers $1000 grants. Obviously this isn’t enough to replace their lost revenue, but it can jump-start their new business model.
As for his part, DiMare says, “It’s devastating for agriculture in Florida. There’s zero demand, and it’s being left in the fields. We have to get this virus contained, or we’re not going to be able to get back to being close to normal.”