The steep drop in demand has left many producers with no other choice than to throw out the surplus food or leave it in the fields because the cost of picking, packing and storing crops would not than push them further into the hole. Some with more resources on hand have borne the cost of harvesting and donating food themselves, but the heartbreaking reality is that crops are being abandoned on an unprecedented scale.
A handful of states, including Florida and California, have set up online clearinghouses to try to match excess food to the needs of their region, but the high volumes of surplus products often cannot not be absorbed by local food banks alone, which makes national distribution important to even clear up waste.
Paul Allen, co-owner of RC Hatton Farms, is currently browsing hundreds of acres of cabbage – a process that grinds crops in the ground – because there is simply no market for it. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but the cabbage he grows is generally used for coleslaw in restaurant chains like KFC. Allen estimates that he left about 8 million pounds of cabbage and 4.5 million pounds of green beans in the fields.
“We were devastated,” said Allen. His business has already donated hundreds of thousands of pounds of vegetables to food banks. The company also sent containers of produce to the Bahamas and paid the harvest costs to make it happen.
Now, says Allen, he has to decide how many of his crops are best left unpicked, not knowing when much of his customer base will reopen. “Should I continue to suffer more losses? He said, noting that vegetable growers have already spent several thousand dollars per acre before harvesting. “But if I stop growing food for our country, it’s even a bigger problem. “
Producers target USDA
Product industry leaders, including Allen, are also furious that the USDA is considering imposing payment limits for the rest of its assistance to farmers affected by the coronavirus. The ministry said in mid-April that agricultural producers would be limited to $ 125,000 per product or $ 250,000 total to help compensate for the damage, as it would pay $ 16 billion in direct payments.
“We begged them not to put a cap on it,” said Allen. Farmers growing fruits and vegetables have extremely high costs per acre and often plant on such a scale that payments will not even begin to cover their losses. Growing basic soybeans generally costs less than $ 700 per acre. Cabbage cultivation costs more than $ 4,000 per acre. “What is right is not always equal,” he said.
While $ 250,000 is a lot of money for most Americans, it represents about a day of harvest for RC Hatton.
Nearly a third of House legislators recently asked Perdue to abolish the limits on the grounds of “unprecedented damage.”
The scale of production waste is staggering. Florida farmers, who supply much of the fresh produce to the eastern half of the United States during winter and spring, have left about 75% of the lettuce crop unharvested, along with significant portions of sweet corn , state cabbage and squash. Up to 250 million pounds of tomatoes could end up in the fields, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Florida officials estimate that fruit and vegetable producers have suffered half a billion dollars there. In California, the industry is expected to lose more than a billion dollars a month.
Tony DiMare, who has worked in the produce industry for almost 40 years, said he has never experienced such a dramatic disruption in demand. “He stopped suddenly,” he said. This has been particularly devastating for Florida tomato producers, 80 percent of whom are sold in the food service industry.
Toby Basore, a producer based in Western Palm Beach County, Florida, estimates that his business has thrown 8-10 million pounds of lettuce in the ground in recent weeks due to lack of demand.
“We were fortunate to have a great season before this hit,” said Basore. “You just can’t plan something like this. “
The dairy industry, for its part, estimates that its supply is currently 10% higher than domestic demand, in part because of the closure of thousands of kindergarten to grade 12 schools, which are generally large milk consumers. The upheaval has strained the ability of dairy processors to transform milk into more storable products like cheese. The International Dairy Foods Association claims that about 5% of the country’s milk is currently dumped.
Now the problems in Florida are expected to migrate to other major growing areas that are just starting their harvest seasons, including California, Georgia and South Carolina.