As grocery stores are emptying and all kinds of items are flying off the shelves, those responsible for producing the food – the nation’s roughly two million farms and 2.6 million farm employees – are facing strange times, where inconsistency and uncertainty are the only things that can be consistently expected. In New York City, the nation’s leading hotspot for COVID-19 cases, local farms and farmers markets are being proclaimed a necessity for safe produce shopping.
“I’m not going into the supermarket, around people,” said Brooklynite Sioux Nesi, telling The New York Times that an enclosed grocery store felt risky. With delivery services backed up for days, the open-air farmers market seemed the safest possible option. Business in those markets is mostly booming, the Times reports – though new safety precautions have seen some local farms sitting out as they move to reconfigure their operations.
But that is New York, where the population will pay a high mark-up over standard grocery store prices on meat and produce. Flash over to Lancaster and Berks Counties in Pennsylvania, which are populated with small and medium-sized dairy farms, and the situation is nearly the opposite. Their business isn’t booming – farmers are being ordered to dump their milk by the tens of thousands of gallons to account for changing demand patterns.
"I hate to see a food resource wasted," Pennsylvania Senator Judith Schwank noted. "I think the schools being closed drastically reduced demand. Too much milk was coming in."
The farmers have been paid for the milk and normal pick-up schedules have resumed, but the entire local industry is worried. With such inconsistency in demand and such huge spikes and plummets, consumers are stocking up and hoarding – and buying en masse in cycles.
And, according to recent reports, that problem is not localized to farmers in rural Pennsylvania – across the entire industry, it is one of a host of complications raised by the spreading contagion of COVID-19, in both human beings and the economy at large.
The developments have made the already difficult business of agriculture in the U.S. much harder of late. Unlike other industries, farmers can’t work from home or remotely, and cannot virtually plant, tend or harvest crops. Nor can there be any delay, pull-back or modification of production after the seeds have gone into the ground. The crops come ripe, the cows need to be milked and the goods must be shipped in a very narrow window of time – or never at all.
“A peach [that] is good today is not good tomorrow. That's how quick things ripen," South Carolina farmer Chalmers Carr told CNN Business. "If you leave [strawberries and blueberries] on the bush or the vine one extra day, they're virtually worthless."
Some crops are slightly more forgiving, but the window is rarely much larger than a few days at most. April and May are crunch time for farms across the U.S. – if they can’t get workers into the fields to pick and process those crops, or if there isn’t a properly functioning supply chain to push them to market, Carr noted, those crops are going to be lost.
And farmers are becoming increasingly concerned that labor shortages will be a critical issue, since nearly three-quarters of U.S. farm workers are foreign-born and allowed to come to the U.S. on H-2A Visas.
"We are a sector that is very dependent upon guest workers coming into this country, particularly for the planting and harvesting of specialty crops [like] fresh fruits and vegetables," Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told CNN.
So far, Visa applications have held up. The concern is that if the conditions in the U.S. get much worse, the government could decide to cut them back, or foreign workers may simply avoid the close-contact farm work until after the pandemic has passed. And, most farmers and advocacy groups noted, the millions of Americans who currently find themselves on the unemployment rolls cannot simply go work at farms for the same reason that they can’t simply go to hospitals to work as doctors or nurses: They aren’t qualified for the jobs.
"It's very skilled labor," Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, told CNN. "If you're a peach picker, you're very different than a strawberry picker. And the ability to handle the volume and keep up with the pace – it's a professional job."
And it’s a job that, like most in farming, looks to be uncertain and unsettled in the immediate future.
Adaptations, notably, have been made. Farms and producers that once sold mainly to restaurants via B2B channels have diverted some of their supply to direct-to-consumer sales. To buttress those efforts, farmers from California to Florida have set up online ordering services and delivery to get their produce into consumers’ hands. But for every story of a successful pivot, there are tales of local farmers and farms tossing their crops for lack of an ability to get them harvested and into the supply chain.
And, as spring harvest season is giving way to spring planting season in anticipation of the summer season, uncertainty abounds about how much farmers should plan to plant. Growers are "planting right now for late spring, summer," said Ed O'Malley, vice president of supply and merchandising at Imperfect Foods, a discount grocery delivery service that sells “ugly” produce.
Pre-pandemic, O’Malley told CNN, food production was very predictable – but with restaurants closed and grocery surging, the math gets a whole lot harder to calculate with confidence. "For a grower to go ahead and plant 2,000 acres when he's really only going to need 1,200, boy, that's a very expensive proposition," he said.
And now, with so much uncertainty, farmers badly want to avoid expensive mistakes.
According to the experts, the food supply and farming will hold out, and there will be options on the shelves. But as for the bounty and broad swath of options to which customers are accustomed, that might end up being the next casualty of COVID-19.