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Agriculture Industry Braces For Chill from Coronavirus
Cabbage Field | Photo Courtesy of Cory Peeks

Local Agricultural Industry Braces Against Chill From Coronavirus

IMPERIAL COUNTY — With the winter harvest winding down, local agriculture officials and growers say many of the restrictions now in place due to the threat of COVID-19 have been damaging to the industry at a time when Imperial County farm fields supply much of the nation its winter crop of vegetables.

“I’ve had to leave half of my harvest (Romaine and leaf lettuce) in the ground. Thank God we’re at the tail end of the season,” said Jack Vessey, owner of Holtville-based Vessey & Company, a family farm that grows fruits, vegetables, hay and grain on more than 10,000 acres.

“There’s not enough demand and prices are at the bottom. Our leafy greens are very dependent on the food service market (restaurants),” Vessey said recently.

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak could cost the national agriculture industry about $1 billion in losses between March and May, according to a recent study by Colorado State University, University of Missouri and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Research and Development Division.

As the coronavirus spread, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a directive for restaurants to close their doors to dine-in business, staying open only for the purposes of delivery or carryout. Some have chosen to close altogether. The result has caused a financial impact to growers’ income from the lost sales.

Still, Vessey is hopeful that the stern measures in place now to stem the spread of COVID will be lifted in time to prepare for the upcoming growing season.

“Hopefully things return to normal by June so we can get our fields into shape.” Vessey added. “We start putting seeds into the ground in August. But we have to have plans in place by mid-June on what to grow and how many acres.”

Despite the predicted losses and the uncertainty around the industry, Imperial County Farm Bureau officials say agriculture has been deemed an “essential” industry and growers and farm laborers are cleared to continue to work during this time of mandatory lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

“Agriculture has been deemed essential to the U.S. food supply chain,” said Brea Mohamed, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau. “So, our farms must prepare to be able to continue to put food on the tables of Americans, even while much of the rest of the state is ordered to stay at home.”

Newsom’s directives have resulted in the closures of universities, schools, restaurants and farm stands, prompting a change where food is sold. According to the study data, the impact will be felt in how Americans procure their food during this time. With farmer’s markets alone, sales could fall between $240 million or more through May, according to Morning Agriculture, an online newsletter. And a $27 million loss could result from restaurant closures and institutional food sale declines.

Farmers Ready to Do Their Part

Growers both locally and on the national level are already instituting measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, Mohamed said.

“Recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus are things that farms are already doing, like hand-washing and disinfecting,” she said. “And social distancing isn’t anything new for our industry. While in a field or working in a feedlot, many of the day-to-day operations allow for it.”

Agriculture Industry Braces For Chill from Coronavirus
Photo Courtesy of Cory Peeks

Cash reserves during the crisis has also been a concern. The American Farm Bureau Federation asked Congress to support farmers as they continue to produce food and work through the emergency by expanding the USDA’s borrowing authority under the Commodity Credit Corp., Mohamed pointed out.

There is no doubt the coronavirus has impacted Imperial Valley agriculture because of restaurants and ancillary business closures or hourly cutbacks, explained Wally Leimgruber, land-use consultant and a former rancher.

“Supermarkets are having difficulty with supply chain reliability; fresh eggs, milk, poultry and beef,” he said. “Is industry able to keep up supply to retailers?”

Customer Jitters Figure into Equation

Another factor that has vastly changed over the prior couple of weeks is, where a homemaker may have purchased a dozen eggs for her family to last a week, she now buys two dozen.

“There’s no crisis in food supply,” said Leimgruber. “But binge buying created shortages for supermarkets and big-box stores and it shouldn’t be so because restaurant purchases are down since they are temporarily closed except for take-out service.”

People need to return to normal purchase patterns. The community will eventually get through the pandemic, cautioned Leimgruber. But in the event people get caught short, they should reach out to their neighbors.          

“People are willing to share in this community,” he said. “I’ve made dozens of appeals to family and friends. If you run short, call my wife or myself. We are happy to share from our pantry.”

This story is featured in the April 2, 2020 e-Edition.