We Can Live Without Celebrities, Not Farmers: Experts in Ag Discuss COVID-19 Impact
If you’re on social media, you’ve seen all the memes regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, as declared by the World Health Organization only weeks ago. Some are funny. Some are sad. Some are encouraging and heartwarming. All are a way to cope with this odd, and at times, terrorizing new normal we live in.
My favorite, “We’re discovering we can live without celebrities and sports stars, but we can’t live without farmers,” perhaps sums it all up. And maybe just maybe, it makes consumers realize the food supply system is much more complex and important than anyone in America ever imagined, certainly paused long enough to consider.
Empty grocery shelves? Shortages of food staples? Lines around the corner to wait and get into the store? Nope. Not talking about Russia or a developing nation. These are scenes in America right now. And, you’re not waking up from some nightmare.
A lot is happening on the ground out on our Arizona farms and ranches. And different sectors in agriculture are being impacted differently. Farmers and ranchers continue to work 24/7 to maintain America’s food supply despite the public’s fear that our supply is struggling. Our regular outreach message is, “Your food supply is secure” because it is!
But the public is in a panic including stealing from farmers. “I have to tell you, Julie, I’m pretty stressed right now,” said retail farmer Frank Martin of Crooked Sky Farms and Maricopa County Farm Bureau member. “We have had another break-in at the farm where they have stolen 20 dozen eggs and produce. We have had a lot of orders lately; a good thing because we don’t know how much longer the farmers markets may go on. The problem is people are not very patient at all as they think we can get large orders out with a two-hour notice, or they just drive in and want to pick something without calling. We are trying to maintain a 24-hour advance notice but may need to extend it to 48 hours. Well, that’s my midnight rant, I’ve got to get a little sleep and be ready for the market in a few hours. Thank you, Julie.” The text came to me at 12:48 a.m. in the morning, sleeping soundly unlike Farmer Frank.
My regular conversations articles touch base with experts and ask them questions. This time, considering my topic, I wanted a broad swath of input from more than one voice. So, the main question I asked all my experts, “What do you anticipate might be the impact of the COVID-19 in the agriculture sector?” First up, an economist from UArizona.
Arizona Agriculture Overall Perspective
Our health, our security, our liberty and freedom depend on our ability to feed ourselves. As the Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, I can tell you we have plenty of food in Arizona and the nation. So, I’d encourage Arizona families not to panic.
We need to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For anyone running out and buying the stores empty, we have lots of food in America. We produce more food than any country in the world. We in Arizona have millions of gallons of milk produced each week in our dairies, our egg ranches produce millions of eggs each day. There is plenty of beef to go around. While we encourage families to buy only what you need, the bulk buyers are influencing the empty shelves. In the meantime, stores will catch up.
I’m trying to tell our Arizona families our food system will catch up with us, especially if we will just use some common sense and avoid panic. I’m sharing with people I talk with to consider where we would be if we were dependent on other countries for our food supply. This COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to protect American agriculture. And, when pandemics like this happen or other emergencies, we can feed ourselves. God bless America!
Mark W. Killian, Arizona Department of Agriculture Director
The Dairyman’s Perspective
Well first, we must be milking cows every day. And even outside the pandemic, rain has impacted milk production, down a bit. Class 1 (fluid milk) Shamrock, Kroger and Safeway customers, have been taking a large amount of extra milk. United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA) is effectively moving it through the plant because of the demand. Our other dairy products are a different story and mean we must understand what’s happening with different sectors in retail. For example, dine-in restaurants are suffering.
As a result, we have concern for our other dairy products. While class 1 milk sales are through the roof (the gallon of milk you buy at the grocery store, for example), UDA processes much more than class 1. And because much of what we process goes onto retail eating establishments that includes cheese to McDonald’s for example, massive stockpiles of product are not moving right now. This is maxing out UDA’s warehouse. What we can move goes out at a significant discount for example, powdered milk at $.80 to .90 cents versus the $1.15 it normally brings.
Schools are a concern too. Our schools depend on lots of dairy. So, the longer the shutdown of schools the greater our concern. There is plenty of milk for all the products and there’s plenty of milk to provide for the schools.
The disruptions have changed the supply lines significantly. So, some areas in the dairy supply chain might be a bit more robust, where other areas of the diary supply chain may suffer. People in tough times return to staples, your basics and that typically includes milk.
We’re pivoting to unusual requests too. The UDA team tells me that one of our customers asked for a larger supply of condensed milk. So, we are accommodating them. Ultimately, we are being as fluid as our fluid milk, working to adjust our distribution and deal with product overwhelming our inventory if not moving. Whatever the customer wants they get.
Paul Rovey, former president of DMI and board member of United Dairyman of Arizona
The Arizona Farm Bureau President’s Perspective
Currently, the production of food in this country is strong as farmers continue to follow the cycle that mother nature dictates and not the volatility of the financial markets. There are ample supplies in frozen storage facilities and raw agricultural products are being shipped to stores and food processors as they always have. In addition, continued restrictions on public gatherings will likely have an impact on demand for some farm products and shift supplies to grocers and away from restaurants and other similar commercial markets, helping to adjust the flow of goods to match demand.
“However, farmers don’t control the integration of the rest of the supply chain and other factors could disrupt distribution including higher than expected demand at retail establishments and other policy decisions related to the pandemic. For example, Mexico’s decision to severely restrict the border to legal worker crossings could impact the supply chain for leafy greens and other fresh vegetables. In Yuma County and Imperial County, where we produce 85% of the U.S. supply of leafy greens this time of year, we will still need 40,000 to 50,000 harvesters working each day in vegetable fields. Of those, 15,000 harvesters cross daily into the U.S. from San Luis, Mexico to come work harvesting lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower.
“The limiting cancellation of routine immigration services will undoubtedly have an impact on the availability of fresh produce, not because we aren’t able to produce it, but because we already have a labor shortage in agriculture, and this will exasperate that shortage. If we can’t get produce out of the field, then we can’t restock the grocer’s bins or your plate.
“As Arizona farmers and ranchers, we’re committed to doing our best to supply to local, national and global markets. In agriculture, we are our brother’s keeper in good times and bad. We commend the work of all those who continue to toil to make sure our food demands are met and pray for a speedy resolution to this global pandemic.”
Stefanie Smallhouse, Arizona Farm Bureau President and a rancher, with her husband Andy, in southern Arizona
The Agri-Business Perspective
It does not take official declarations by authorities to illuminate the fact that Agriculture is an essential industry, at least not for the folks engaged in the food chain as a producer handler or possessor or distributor.
But the sooner that is stated legally and the barriers in the food chain removed and reduced the more certain our society will feel about what is absolutely the most uncertain of circumstances.
Agriculture production and the people engaged in what otherwise is considered a legacy industry by the average citizen is now clearly being understood as the very fiber that makes a society’s fabric.
I am certain that US agriculture and the incredible folks that produce our feed, seed, food and fiber in this State and our Country can meet the challenges of COVID19.
Eric Wilkey, Arizona Grain President
The Produce Farmer’s Perspective
Duncan Family Farms would like to express our heartfelt support for all our community members near and far that are suffering the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic. Our agricultural communities across the Unites States are comprised of strong individuals who are accustomed to dealing with diverse challenges on a day to day basis. These people know how to keep America fed in good times and in tough times. The good news is the crops in our fields will keep growing. It is just vitally important we keep our team members safe and healthy so we can continue to harvest and distribute product to the stores and to our local communities.
Duncan Family Farms is committed to maintaining a safe and secure workplace so that we can accomplish our mission of producing clean, healthy, life-giving food while contributing to an improved environment and giving back to our community. At Duncan Family Farms safety has always been our first priority and we will continue to be vigilant to ensure that these measures will help all our team members, partners and community members to stay safe and healthy as we navigate through these unprecedented times. We are confident that the agricultural communities in the state of Arizona and across the nation will continue to supply ample food for all.
Arnott Duncan, Duncan Family Farms
Editor’s Note : The full article from more experts will appear in the April 2020 issue of Arizona Agriculture. That version is exclusive to our agriculture members of Arizona Farm Bureau and includes an economist take on what’s occurring. Want the full report? Join Arizona Farm Bureau as an agriculture member.
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