The COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the traditional markets and logistics of the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry. Produce growers, even the largest ones, have shifted to direct-to-consumer sales driven by social media campaigns in an effort to move their perishable products and maintain some cash flow during the crisis.
One example, Lewis Taylor Farms, located in south-central Georgia and one of the largest vegetable farms in the Southeast, began the week of April 20 to market a $20-box filled with mixed produce, berries and peanuts direct to consumers through its Facebook page and locally.
The farm received orders for around 350 boxes the first week. This week, the farm received orders for more 1,300 boxes, and the trend looks to continue, said Bill Brim, co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms and a well-known advocate for the vegetable industry, in an April 27 phone call with Southeast Farm Press.
The farm uses the Venmo online payment portal to receive payments from customers who then swing by on Wednesday to pick up their orders.
"We've been overwhelmed at the orders and responses, and we are grateful for that. We have local companies, the hospital and UGA (Tifton campus) purchasing to give to employees, too," Brim said.
Brim purchased blueberries from local growers to add to the Lewis Taylor boxes to help those growers move their blueberries and maintain some cash flow, too.
About 90 miles east of Tifton, Mike Thomas and his sons Chad, Michael and Jordan grow more than 500 acres of blueberries, the family's primary business. Three years ago at this same time, a late-season freeze destroyed much of their blueberries and those of fellow growers in the area. But this year, the crop was coming in strong, and they were getting the word out.
Down in Homestead, Fla., Sam Accursio and Sons Farms hit a stride selling locally after the pandemic held the farm's harvest hostage. For Easter, the local police department setup a preferred route for customers to travel to receive produce the farm was selling direct to them.
According to a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services April 20 assessment based on estimates provided by growers, total crop losses across the state through mid-April could exceed $522.5 million. On April 9, the department created the Florida Farm to You commodities list to connect potential buyers with farmers and producers of Florida-grown commodities like fresh produce, seafood and poultry. April 29, an interactive map was added to the site for users to enter address, city or ZIP code to find growers near them.
UGA Extension in partnership with the Georgia Department of Agriculture's Georgia Grown program created the Ag Products Connection network to connect growers and producers with Georgia consumers looking for fresh, Georgia-grown products. The online connection provides at the county level details on what crops are available, when, how to receive and payment details.
Through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, the USDA is partnering with regional and local distributors. The USDA will make agricultural purchases estimated at $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in dairy products and $100 million per month in meat products. Interested distributors and producers must submit proposals by May 1 at 1:00 PM for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
Brim said on March 25 he realized things were about to get bad. Orders for his greens, broccoli and other cole crops all but shut off, down 60% to 75% compared to this time last year. As of now he doesn't see a light at the end of the tunnel as orders for spring planted vegetables, such as cucurbits and tomatoes, are not kicking in as restaurants remain closed or limited in services and other high-end buyers and retailers can't absorb the overflow of produce.
Brim currently maintains several hundred workers with pay housed on his farm, where a strict sanitation protocol is in place across the operation, which is an additional cost. As of now all remain healthy. He expects another 100 or so workers to arrive from Mexico in the next few weeks, if there are no issues with federal immigration policies at that time. He has more crops to harvest and to plant. Farmers must keep farming to feed the country, he said, even if it is at a loss to do so right now.
Brim's area has faced several consecutive bad years, including a pest infestation three years ago, Hurricane Michael two years ago, pressure on prices from imported crops and now dramatic disruption to markets caused by the current pandemic.
"Farmers are optimists. We have to be. You can't do this work if you are not," Brim said. "But if something doesn’t change or get better, I don't know. We'll keep doing it as long as we can."