Fall Creek Farm & Nursery photos of its COVID-19 safety efforts.

May 18, 2020
Pandemic impact hits agriculture, including specialty crops

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected the way companies do business.

Reports have emerged from across the country from agricultural organizations attempting to adapt their operations to new workplace and market forces.

Outlets such as Fall Creek Farm & Nursery in Lowell, Oregon, were keeping its followers up-to-date on social media platforms.

“We continue to operate, producing plants and serving our customers,” Fall Creek posted on its Facebook page on April 23. “We have had to develop new policies and procedures to ensure our No. 1 goal: keeping our employees healthy and safe.

“As we seek to navigate a rapidly-changing environment, the executive leadership team has established a digital daily standing meeting,” the posting said. “This check-in allows our executives to report on and stay informed about the health and well-being of our employees and customers globally allowing for quick responses and adaptations as we collaborate. It also allows for cross pollination between geographic business units to share and adopt best practices to ensure employee health and safety.

“Employee safety is always a top priority at Fall Creek,” the posting said. “While we have broadened our safety programs and initiatives through the years, it’s impossible to anticipate all scenarios until they become real. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we have developed heightened safety policies and protocols around the world to assure the safety and wellness of our people as we continue operating and serving our customers who produce healthy blueberries for people around the world.

“Simple measures like employee spacing, frequent hand-washing and wearing of face masks are new norms for our employees working throughout our subsidiaries,” Fall Creek indicated. “Our teams have also developed adjustments to and new uses for equipment, solutions for employee transport, new team processes and new protocols to ensure health and wellness of everyone arriving and working at our subsidiaries. We continue to look for new ways of keeping our people safe and healthy.

“We are proud of and immensely grateful to our operations managers, management teams, team leaders and every single nursery worker who helps to bring forward new ideas and who commit themselves daily to following these very important health and safety measures. Thank you for making sure that our customers continue to receive the quality plants they need while also making everyone’s health a top priority!”

Communications by Zoom technology have become normal practice for business operations, including Fall Creek Farm & Nursery.

As has been the case in much of the specialty agriculture realm, Fall Creek has found market adjustments to the coronavirus outbreak have brought some positive impacts.

“We wanted to share some positive news about blueberries in this complex time,” an April 14 posting from Fall Creek indicated. “Over the past few years, the trends in online interest via queries on blueberries have been relatively consistent. In the last month or so, the interest in blueberries has skyrocketed. Many elements of our industry’s supply chain and the market itself are disrupted. With that said, consumers remain more connected to our product than ever.”

Still, pockets of negative reports dotted the landscape for specialty crop producers.

For example, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released on April 20 the Florida Seasonal Crop COVID-19 Impact Assessment, a new report providing data on crop losses facing Florida farmers, detailing more than $522 million in projected losses for Florida’s seasonal produce growers.

About 40% of Florida’s blueberry crop remained to be harvested. At mid-season, growers reported that prices are down at least 35% from previous years, according to the impact assessment. At the beginning of the season, growers expected to harvest a total of 24 million pounds of blueberries, but they now expected to finish the season a few weeks early because of decreased demand and the challenge of Mexican imports flooding the American market. Blueberry sector dollar losses of $45-50 million are expected for the season, according to the impact assessment.

Nation under siege

COVID-19 has brought the U.S. economy to a screeching halt, ushering in a recession in the process. For most businesses, the sudden stop to the economy is more jolting than the financial crisis of 2008 and has forced hard, immediate decisions about employees and finances.

According to a new quarterly report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange, COVID-19 has also underscored the critically important nature of agriculture and other industries essential to rural America.

“This quarter will largely define the next year in terms of the economy and how severe the damage caused by the coronavirus will be,” Dan Kowalski, vice president, Knowledge Exchange, CoBank, said in a news release. “Nearly everyone will be impacted to varying degrees and the pace of the recovery will be uneven. But the economy had been on good footing and it’s entirely possible that we can get back to reasonable strength within a few quarters.”

The report indicated U.S. specialty crop growers are fearing an even tighter labor situation unfolding this spring as processing of new H-2A visa applications in Mexico is impaired by COVID-19 complications. Specialty crops growers have benefited from the surge in produce sales at grocery stores but saw reduced exports due to logistical issues related to COVID-19.

Spending long days in their fields, barns and orchards alongside their family and workers, farmers always have health and safety top of mind – and even more so now as the nation works together to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Taking safety measures

From adding hand-washing and sanitizing stations in the field to limiting person-to-person interactions as much as possible, keeping to the farm and even preparing for the worst – a COVID-19 infection on the farm – farmers have been urged to take all the precautions possible to protect themselves, their workers and their communities.

South Carolina peach and vegetable grower Chalmers Carr, who employs more than 800 workers from May through September – with more than 700 of them living on the farm – told the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) he is very mindful about how devastating it would be if one of his workers got sick.

“What would we do if one person gets it? This is very concerning as an employer,” he said.

Coronavirus prevention on Carr’s farm starts with the basics.

“The first thing we’re doing is education and training. And on top of that, we have been providing supplies, especially proper disinfectants, to do proper cleaning,” he explained.

Carr said he, his family and workers are also abiding by the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for limiting contact with others.

“Early on we asked our H-2A temporary workers for some voluntary restrictions on their end, like no out of town travel unless absolutely necessary, keeping visitors to a minimum and no visitors in housing units. Now, like everyone, we’re keeping everything to a bare minimum, like trips to the grocery store,” he said.

Carr has also thought ahead about how to handle a worst-case scenario – a coronavirus diagnosis on the farm – and has identified a separate living and resting space for anyone who gets sick.

Carr emphasized that his company, Titan Farms, is staying vigilant and will continue to make changes as needed.

“This is a day-to-day changing environment. Our workers have been very helpful in making sure that they don’t get sick. They also don’t want to get anyone else sick either,” Carr said.

AFBF said state farm bureaus are engaging farmers on the topic of worker safety in various ways. Some, like North Carolina Farm Bureau, have partnered with university Extension programs to create and distribute one-pagers on COVID-19 safety for farm workers.

The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) and its affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service (FELS) each created dedicated webpages with information for employers, as did other farm organizations, California Farm Bureau reported in its publication, Ag Alert.

Bryan Little, chief operating officer of FELS and director of employment policy for CFBF, said employers throughout California have been reviewing and updating procedures to ensure safety.

“Based on the volume of inquiries we’re receiving, it’s apparent farm employers want to do all they can to keep their employees well,” Little said.

In addition, the AFBF’s COVID-19 webpage has links to several farm worker safety resources.

Relief packages proceed

Megan Nelson, an economic analyst with AFBF, said in order to expedite the delivery of food to needy Americans as quickly and efficiently as possible, USDA, with funding provided by lawmakers in the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, has developed the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The $19 billion agriculture aid package includes $3 billion dedicated to increased commodity purchases for food aid programs. This initiative, which will bring farmers and food banks closer together, will be in addition to USDA’s existing food purchasing programs.

“There are two main ways that USDA directly connects farmers with food aid programs: vouchers to utilize at farmers’ markets and direct purchases through the Food Purchase and Distribution Program,” Nelson wrote.

At farmers’ markets across the country, participants in USDA’s food aid programs are either able to use their electronic benefits transfer card directly with the vendor if the vendor is an approved SNAP retailer, or they can receive a voucher from the farmers’ market authority to use at any vendor, Nelson said. The voucher system provides a simple avenue for all vendors at the market to utilize one SNAP retailer license.

Related: USDA announces additional food purchase plans

Under the direct purchase program, USDA buys food from approved vendors who have proven they are able to supply U.S.-produced products, which the department distributes to states for use in food banks and local food pantries. An approved vendor must complete the vendor registration form, provide a company letter certifying the operation’s capability to perform, and three letters of reference from customers. Then, the purchases are made through a standard RFP, or request-for-proposals solicitation, process and then awarded by USDA. The food purchase decisions are based on analysis conducted in the distribution region and comes through the solicitation process for what is in demand in that region.

The Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security Act provides a safety net for the major federal food security programs, allocating $8.8 billion to school meal programs, $15.8 billion to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and $450 million for USDA’s Commodity Assistance Program. The funds provided to the Commodity Assistance Program are designated to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus through emergency food assistance programs. The act provides an allowance of up to $150 million for the costs associated with the distribution of commodities both domestically and internationally.

Fresh produce purchases

USDA will partner with regional distributors to purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat. The procurement process will follow a streamlined version of the commodity assistance programs, guidelines, with an estimated $100 million per month each for dairy products, meat products, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

These purchases will then be provided in pre-approved food boxes to food banks, and community and faith-based organizations, as well as other non-profit organizations. The goal is to have the food boxes ready to distribute when they are delivered to the food bank, meaning all packaging sizes must be for households or smaller food service.

USDA will award contracts for the purchase of the agricultural products, assembly of commodity boxes and delivery to identified non-profit organizations that can receive, store and distribute food items.

The food products available in AMS’s commodity boxes will vary depending on regional supply and demand. USDA officials have announced priority commodities will be fresh fruits and vegetables, pre-cooked poultry and pork, and fluid milk. Aiming to provide food to those in need as quickly as possible, USDA began issuing solicitations on April 24 and will begin shipping to food banks on May 15.

In addition to the $3 billion set aside for food purchases in CFAP, USDA is authorized to spend the $873.3 million available in the Section 32 account for a larger variety of commodity purchases to distribute to food banks.

Additional loans for farms

The House of Representatives on April 23 cleared a $484 billion COVID-19 relief bill that was signed into law by President Donald Trump. That move reportedly will replenish the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) with an additional $320 billion and make farms eligible for a separate disaster PPP, which is designed to compensate small businesses, including farms, for two months of their wage costs, had been out of money for a week. The new funding includes $60 billion targeted to small lenders and minorities.

Some $4.4 billion of the PPP’s initial round of funding went to businesses involved in agriculture, forestry and hunting and fishing, according to Small Business Administration data.

The new bill will allow farms to participate in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Businesses that are experiencing a temporary loss of revenue can get a grant for $10,000 and borrow up to $2 million under the program. The bill also provided $10 billion to replenish the program.

For more information on the pandemic and how agriculture interests are reacting to it, visit the Fruit Growers news website (www.fruitgrowersnews.com) and click on the COVID-19 pull-tab at the top of the homepage.

Gary Pullano, managing editor


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