Widespread crop diseases. Freezes. Drought. Florida producers are used to dealing with all kinds of crises; it comes with the territory. But nothing could have prepared the specialty crop industry to deal with the devastation wrought by COVID-19.
The coronavirus has altered our world, changed our behaviors, and added words to our lexicon. “Flatten the curve. Immunocompromised. N-95 mask. Asymptomatic. Community spread. Social distancing.”
It also has caused a massive disruption in the food supply chain. With the shutdown first of the foodservice sector and then a dramatic slowdown at the retail level, the losses to Florida’s fresh produce industry have been swift, staggering, and devastating. It has been a double blow for growers. For two decades, you have experienced significant losses from unfair trade practices by Mexico during NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement). Now the pandemic has crushed your markets.
From labor to transportation to federal financial relief, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) continues to work hard on numerous fronts to advocate for you and secure the aid that is so badly needed.
In late March, FFVA first worked to shine a national news spotlight on the plight of fruit and vegetable producers to ensure that Congress and the administration had a clear picture of Florida’s situation and the need for swift relief. Numerous FFVA members and other growers granted interviews and allowed video crews into their fields to talk about having to plow under millions of pounds of unsold crops. The news coverage was widespread: CBS Evening News, CNN, FOX Business, Associated Press, New York Times, NBC’s Today show, ABC News, and many more. We are grateful to you for taking time to share your stories.
FFVA also reached out to producers and commodity groups to gather data on lost crops and revenue, which amounted to $522 million for the season. We compiled the information and submitted it to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Ultimately, it led to the publication of the Florida Seasonal Crop COVID-19 Impact Assessment on April 20.
We assembled information on the many farming operations that ultimately turned to direct-to-consumer sales as a way to meet consumer demand and provide an outlet for produce that couldn’t be sent into the channel of commerce. The site, FFVA.com/consumersales, was widely shared on social media and has been immensely popular. We’re thankful for the consumers who are supporting their local farmers.
In early April, FFVA and other specialty crop associations submitted to USDA a comprehensive Produce Market Stabilization Program that prioritizes the specialty crop industry’s needs and emphasizes direct payments. Members of Florida’s congressional delegation wrote letters to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging USDA to provide swift relief. We thank them for their continued leadership and commitment to Florida’s specialty crop industry throughout this situation.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, announced by USDA on April 17, doesn’t begin to benefit Florida specialty crop producers at the level they so desperately need. Simply put, it is an unfair policy for our growers. The purchase program comes too late to benefit Florida producers whose seasons are over. The direct payments, which are capped at $250,000 per grower, are woefully inadequate to cover the massive losses they have experienced. Specialty crop producers invest thousands of dollars per acre in their crops before harvest ever begins. FFVA has called on our congressional delegation to urge USDA to swiftly devise a program that will provide meaningful relief to Florida producers.
The silver linings during this unprecedented time may be hard to spot. But if there is one, it’s that this pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of American farmers who are on the front lines putting healthy, nutritious food on consumers’ tables day in and day out. It has driven home the critically important message that we must be able to produce our own food in this country to feed Americans. As we move forward into a new, changed future, our industry can use this opportunity to keep reminding consumers to support American growers and American agriculture.
Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and president of the Agriculture Institute of Florida.