More than 70% of Florida’s large farms sell to the service industry which includes theme parks, hotels, restaurants and cruise lines. When COVID-19 brought the tourism industry to a crashing halt this spring, farmers around the state quickly pivoted to sell the bounty of fruit and vegetables that were at peak harvest. In a recently published journal, Catherine Campbell, a UF/IFAS assistant professor and community food systems specialist and Gene McAvoy, a UF/IFAS Emeritus Extension agent specializing in stakeholder relations and vegetable crops describe the impacts COVID-19 had on these farms and how they overcame these impacts with partners around the state.
Florida farms took losses that are hard to comprehend. One grower plowed under 2 million pounds of green beans and 5 million pounds of cabbage because there was nowhere to send the produce before it spoiled. Another farm dumped 100,000 pounds of tomatoes in one week. There are many more examples of losses like this or larger from around the state.
“I don’t think people know how large Florida’s agriculture industry is and that COVID-19 hit these growers at the worst possible time,” Campbell said. “It was our peak harvest season, and the market fell out. Florida supplies most of the produce east of the Mississippi River in the spring and it all just stopped. It was bad for everyone, but producers in other parts of the country were at planting time, not harvest time. For our producers, they had already reached the maximum investment on those crops – paid to plant, maintain (spray, irrigate, fertilize, etc.) and in many cases they already harvested crops – then they couldn’t sell them.”
While the losses were huge, farmers and industry organizations put their heads together to quickly find a home for fresh fruit and vegetables around the state that were on the cusp of waste.
The University of Florida, industry groups, and state and regional organizations such as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation developed a variety of programs and resources to connect Florida growers to buyers.
“The vegetable industry has always been very volatile with rapid changes in price and demand, even in normal years, in addition to challenges imposed by weather, pests and diseases,” McAvoy said. “In many ways they are used to making changes in how they operate. The growers made rapid course changes and sought alternative markets out of necessity.”
Retailers around the state committed to purchasing more Florida and U.S.-grown produce, which was large in-part to consumer demand generated from public awareness of the issues Florida farms faced.
Direct-to-consumer sales were another mode farmers utilized. By promoting through partner organizations and social media, farmers marketed their produce directly to their local communities. One packing house in Homestead opened on weekends for consumer sales and sold more than 120,000 pounds of vegetables. While this was still far less produce than what would normally be sold to traditional markets, it helped consumers and growers alike.
“The losses were heartbreaking,” Campbell said. “This event was a ‘cue to action’ to develop support systems that make it possible for producers to make these kinds of changes in market channels. For some growers, they are just too large to be able to exclusively sell direct-to-consumer, but it can help mitigate events like COVID-19. Their profits were probably not even close to breaking even, but at least it’s a help.”
Despite substantial losses, producers harvested and transport produce to food banks and other hunger-relief organizations to meet the increased demand from those in the community who recently lost their jobs or were furloughed. One sugar producer donated 42,500 pounds of sugar to a rum distillery to make hand sanitizer for donation to first responders, hospitals, nursing homes and essential food supply employees.
“We were building the plane while we were flying it,” Campbell said. “These programs can help producers, large and small, find buyers when their traditional supply chain breaks down. The hope is that this strategy will provide a foundation to support food system resilience in the event of future public health emergencies and natural disasters. It can also help move product instead of it going to waste. If we know where there is food and where people need it, we can mobilize it and get it to those in need.”
For many Florida growers, summer is the off-season, but growers plan to plant for the spring as they normally would each year, McAvoy said.
“Markets have rebounded nicely since May and acreage will likely be back to normal,” he said. “Many growers plan to continue direct sales to local consumers in addition to their wholesale channels that have reopened. With some markets still down, such as cruise lines, buyers and brokers are looking for ways to continue to diversify their sales.”