Florida farmers are used to uncertainty. Usually, this uncertainty has to do with producing the crop itself. Freezes and hurricanes can wipe out a year’s investment overnight, while longer-term scourges like drought, disease and pest infestations can extend the pain season to season. But there’s nothing more nerve-wracking to a farmer than having a healthy crop ready to harvest, and no one to buy it.
That’s the situation many producers are faced with since the outbreak of COVID-19. With restaurants closing or switching to take-out or delivery only, hotels and theme parks shuttered, cruise ships docked and school cafeterias empty, a huge market for Florida agriculture has shut down virtually overnight. This has been especially damaging to the producers of some of Florida’s biggest commodities, such as tomatoes, corn and beans. Our agents in UF/IFAS Extension are hearing dire reports from growers throughout the state, with tens of thousands of acres in danger of not being harvested.
Some farmers are having success in supermarkets, direct marketing, online sales and at farmers markets that are still open. More people are cooking at home, but many consumers are leaning towards products like canned fruits and vegetables, either because of extended shelf-life or unfounded concerns of contamination with COVID-19.
Unfortunately, many producers can’t just flick a switch and start selling to canned food processors or other markets overnight. For crops that are perishable and ready to go now, there is little time for producers to go through the complex and expensive process of figuring out new distribution and consumer chains.
It’s a situation our food system has never had to deal with before and navigating our way through it is going to take several coordinated approaches:
- Understanding the issue: UF/IFAS Extension is developing a survey to systematically assess how agriculture businesses are being impacted by the COVID-19 situation so that we can inform decision-making to find solutions.
- Helping farmers survive: UF/IFAS Extension is developing a portal of resources to help producers and agriculture-related operations navigate relief and operations changes. You can find these resources on the UF/IFAS COVID-19 Updates page at https://ifas.ufl.edu/covid19-updates/resources/.
- Advocating for Federal aid: The stimulus bill passed by Congress on March 27 included $9.5 billion in dedicated disaster relief for farmers. That’s a good start, but it’s going to take a lot more to help farmers impacted by COVID-19. As we did after Hurricanes Irma and Michael, UF/IFAS Extension will be providing resources to help farmers get available bridge-loans and other forms of relief.
- Encouraging consumers to buy fresh, Florida-grown produce: UF/IFAS Extension is stepping up its message to consumers that Florida produce is safe and accessible.
Florida’s farmers and UF/IFAS Extension have worked together through many times of uncertainty. Now we’re facing an entirely new kind of threat, and we’ll need to work together to see it through. I hope when we come out of this that we can take a comprehensive look at Florida’s agriculture and take steps to ensure a more resilient food system.