The COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is creating numerous challenges for farmers and the food supply chain. Not only does COVID-19 pose a health risk to farmers and farm workers, it may reduce the availability of farm labor, disrupt markets for farm products, and create financial challenges for farmers. Although some direct-market farmers are experiencing an increase in demand, others are negatively impacted as sales to restaurants and schools decline, some farmers’ markets close, and agritourism visits may fall. We briefly summarize possible adaptation strategies for direct-market farms and list some programs available to help small businesses cope with COVID-19.
How can small farms adapt?
Farmers can try to adapt to the current situation by adjusting their product mix and packaging, considering alternative market outlets and distribution systems, taking additional safety precautions, and communicating effectively with customers.
With heightened concern about pathogens and health, consumers look for foods they think are nutritious, as well as safer options for shopping and other activities. Products thought to boost our immune systems are in demand, and consumers may also respond to perceptions about the cleanliness and safety of products.
Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not find any evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food, the virus can be spread by close person-to-person contact and possibly by touching contaminated surfaces. The place where food is purchased and how it is handled could potentially affect coronavirus risks. UF/IFAS Extension, NC State Extension, and Vegetable Growers News offer advice on how farmers can reduce virus transmission risk and reassure customers at farmers markets. Suggestions include wearing sanitary gloves, packaging items to reduce touching of products, avoiding product sampling, making hand sanitizer and wash stations readily available, and maintaining safe social distances. The Florida Agritourism Association offers advice for how farms that host visitors can reduce risks and adapt to coronavirus concerns. Their suggestions include limiting the number of visitors, signs about social distancing and hand washing, and “drive through” or “drive in” options. The CDC offers recommended strategies for businesses to reduce virus risks.
In addition, there may be opportunities for farmers to adjust where and how their products are sold. For example, some farms may be able to increase online sales and offer home delivery or product pickup options on-farm or at community hubs, typically as a prepacked box or bag allowing for quick transactions and minimal produce handling. Growers who focus on a limited number of crops may consider partnering with other growers to obtain enough product variety and volume to support such a system. UF/IFAS Extension publications on direct marketing and community supported agriculture (CSA) systems may provide a good starting framework.
What assistance programs are available?
The State of Florida conducts a Business Damage Assessment Survey, which you can fill out online. Florida’s Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program provides short-term interest-free loans to eligible small businesses that experience economic damages from COVID-19. The application deadline is May 8, 2020. Florida’s Small Business Development Centers can provide assistance with the loan application and other resources. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) recently announced that it is offering low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) to small businesses in Florida that suffer economic injury resulting from COVID-19. The application deadline is December 18, 2020, and you can apply online. Conflicting information has been issued about EIDL, but it appears farms are not eligible (except for agricultural cooperatives, aquaculture enterprises, nurseries, and farm-dependent businesses). Farms with less than 500 employees, as other small businesses, are eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program. Some employers and employees who lose work hours during temporary slowdowns may be eligible for the Short-Time Compensation Program. American Farmland Trust has set up a Farmer Relief Fund to help support farmers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Your local UF/IFAS Extension office may be able to assist with other questions related to farming or public health.
Blog post by Kevin Athearn and Matthew Smith, UF/IFAS Extension. Thanks to Bill Messina and Christa Court in the University of Florida Food and Resource Economics Department for helpful input on this post.