Farmers slowly recovering after initial disruption from pandemic

Posted at 7:53 PM, Jul 10, 2020

Farmers across the country are hard at work preparing their summer harvest. After a devastating spring, they're seeing the market may be picking back up.

"We did see kind of a dip in produce buying in that mid-April period, a pretty significant dip in produce buying. But we began to normalize and climb out of that dip as we headed into May," said Ian Lemay, the President of the California Fresh Fruit Association.

Lemay said farmers are now cautiously optimistic about the summer harvest, which is full of stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums.

"As long as the consumer has been able to make it into the grocery store, which as shelter in place has been eased, we've seen a bit more of a normalization of purchasing habits," Lemay said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, some farmers were forced to throw out their crops or leave them in the fields to rot as supply chains crumbled, and demand quickly shifted. Some farmers can adjust their crops according to demand. Others, like stone fruit growers, have permanent crops like trees and vines that will produce fruit no matter what is happening to the market.

"We don't have the ability to throttle back or stop the harvest," said Tricia Stever Blattler, the Executive Director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau in California. "A permanent orchard that grows stone fruit like nectarines and peaches, plums or grapes, and certainly we can't tell our dairy cows to stop giving milk."

Blattler said packing houses are facing longer production times due to new COVID-19 safety processes, but they're still able to put out plenty of produce. She is concerned, though, that the economic downturn will affect what shoppers buy at the grocery stores.

"Specialty produce, fresh eating produce will suffer and be less chosen. Less than it would in a good economic cycle," Blatter said. "People are going to buy the canned goods and more affordable choices at the grocery store and maybe skip some of those items that they see to be a little bit pricier like specialty crops."

Farmers will also be at the whim of international markets, as many export up to 40% of their produce. The California Fresh Fruit Association is also hopeful that schools will be open in the coming months, as much of their fruit goes into a number of school lunch programs.

"We're hoping that meaningful plans by different educational institutions can be laid out, and maybe schools are back operating this fall," Lemay said. "We obviously like to get fresh fruit in the hands of children, and if they're not in school, it gets a little bit more difficult."

As for what the near future holds for produce farming, many are hopeful that demand will continue.