Coronavirus: As focus stays on urban areas, US farmers are struggling with harvests and food supply gets hit
'It is a reality. If there are no workers, there will be crops that will go unharvested, and that has a ripple effect throughout this economy and it will affect the consumers of this nation'
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the shutdown of various industries that have either been forced to lay off most of their workforce or minimize it. As a result, they are facing great losses and the economy is experiencing its effects. Essential industries remain open and people are still making weekly trips to supermarkets to stock up on groceries, yet most farmers whose produce is definitely being bought off, remain skeptical of their fate during this crisis. Farmers have been hard at work to produce surplus food supply to meet the ever-increasing demand but are cracking under the pressure.
Most of the agriculture workforce, i.e. at least a quarter-million in the US comprised foreign labor, in the past year, according to CBS News. Migrant laborers occupied most of the jobs, but this year it faces a severe shortage in labor because of coronavirus, mostly because of the restrictions on migrant workers amid the other problems caused by the pandemic. But there's no guarantee that domestic labor will come in to fill in that gap.
In addition, farmers have to stick to a rigid planting and harvesting schedule that cannot be readjusted easily to meet demands. The time frame between April and May is important to the farmers, as its the crucial planting and harvesting time for the next crop cycle.
Bill Brim, a farmer from Georgia in an interview with CBS said, "This coronavirus has got everybody so stirred up." The worry has induced a state of insomnia in many farmers as the coronavirus crisis has potentially reduced their labor requirements, mostly comprising Mexican laborers. The pandemic has pushed migration and visa processing matters to the very back of the US Government's impending duties.
"It could devastate us. It could put us out of business, really," Brim affirmed to CBS if things don't work out for him. "We're hoping this coronavirus will get out of here and we can go back to a little bit of normalcy," he continued, hoping this year will not mark his last as a farmer.
While Americans flocked to grocery stores to stock up on necessities, most were left to scour through empty shelves. The shortages were not caused by a lack of food, instead by impediments in the supply. So, grocery stores were able to refill their shelves easily.
Gary Black, Commissioner of Agriculture for Georgia, reiterating the farmer's concerns, said, "It is a reality. If there are no workers, there will be crops that will go unharvested, and that has a ripple effect throughout this economy, and it will affect the consumers of this nation."
Brim has also been stressing about the workers that he has currently employed, becoming sick. Most of his harvest could also go to waste because the recipients of his farm products are mostly restaurants. They buy at least 60 percent of his crops annually, but this year it seems that he may suffer due to their closure.
The increased demand for food has also caused fluctuations in the price of agricultural produce. "When people are buying tons and tons of one item like eggs or canned food, then we have a distribution problem", Nick Levendofsky, the director of external affairs for the Rocky Mountains Framers Union, made up of 20,000 members from Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico told ABC News.
Patty Edelburg, the vice president of the National Farmers Union that has over 200,000 members is a dairy farmer based in Wisconsin. According to her, milk prices shifted from $18 per hundredweight (cwt) in January, to nearly $13 per cwt in March due to the pandemic. She also told ABC News that beef prices had reduced by 25 percent in the last few weeks.
Levendofsky addressed the uncertainty perturbing most farmers about the long-term effects of staggering change in prices and demand for food supply. This could potentially influence their decision on the kind of crops to plant and the amount of livestock they would need to invest in before the onset of the spring season. He also pointed out that there is no solid proof that the crops can transmit the virus or the livestock, but there is the fear that workers can contract it either way.
Some farmers are equipping their field workers with protective gear including masks, gloves, and cards that help them identify as essential workers to law enforcement, said Monica Ramirez, the founder and president of Justice for Migrant Women said to ABC News. Even so, there are still many migrant workers who do not get any form of protection from COVID-19 while working in the field.
"What most concerns us is the workers who aren't getting any information and where they aren't getting any extra protection to keep them healthy," she expressed. Ramirez also recalled having heard stories about farms shutting down since they weren't able to accommodate the workers in packing sheds or facilities because of the social-distancing regulations.
Edelburg added that shutting down processing plants would affect supply for dairy farmers in particular. Copious amounts of milk would eventually go to waste.
During these trying times, workers are an asset to the agricultural sector. The US State Department is currently working on clearing more workers to enter the country by forgoing the in-person interview requirement. The US government signed a coronavirus bill last week to implement the provision of $23.5 billion to assist farmers, which included $14 billion that would go the U.S Department of Agriculture for its Commodity Credit Corporation to fund trade aid programs. But industry leaders have said that the government would have to intervene in other ways, for farmers to be able to make it through the upcoming months.