As some misguided liberals complain about fruits “left rotting on the trees” because Trump’s immigration crackdown has left no undocumented migrants to pick the vegetables (a demonstrably false assumption), the Associated Press has offered an explanation for this phenomenon that also illustrates how disruptions in the businesses like the hospitality and food-service industry work their way through the supply chain, ultimately sticking farmers in the American Farm Belt with fields of vegetables that they can’t sell, or even donate as local food pantries are now full-up with donations from restaurants.
The AP started its story in Palmetto, Fla. a city in Manatee County on the Gulf Coast, where a farmer had dumped piles of zucchini and other fresh vegetables to rot.
As the AP reported, thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables grown in Florida are being plowed over or left to rot because farmers who had grown the crops to sell to restaurants or other hospitality-industry buyers like theme parks and schools have been left on the hook for the crops.
As the economy shuts down across the country, injecting what the Fed described as massive levels of uncertainty, farmers in the state are now begging Ag Secretary Sonny Purdue to get some of that farm bailout money. Without some kind of industry-specific bailout, these farmers might go out of business.
The problem – in a nutshell – is that these farmers have longstanding sales relationships, but suddenly, those customers have disappeared. And many other companies in the US that are still buying produce already have contracts with foreign suppliers.
It would be great if Trump could come in with agricultural tariffs that would effectively cut off foreign competition, but such a move would likely be widely panned by the establishment, who would sooner watch every small farmer commit hari-kari than see continued pullback in globalization and more limits on free trade.
“We gave 400,000 pounds of tomatoes to our local food banks,” DiMare said. “A million more pounds will have to be donated if we can get the food banks to take it.”
Farmers are scrambling to sell to grocery stores, but it’s not easy. Large chains already have contracts with farmers who grow for retail — many from outside the U.S.
“We can’t even give our product away, and we’re allowing imports to come in here,” DiMare said.
He said 80 percent of the tomatoes grown in Florida are meant for now-shuttered restaurants and theme parks.
And the problem isn’t unique to farmers in Florida. Other states are having similar issues. Agricultural officials said leafy greens grown in California have no buyers, and dairy farmers in states like Vermont have been hit especially hard. Dairy farmers in VT and Wisconsin told the AP they’ve had to dump surplus loads of milk.
An association for farmers in Florida asked the administration if their veggies could be donated to food-stamp or other federal welfare programs, but reportedly, they never heard back.
“The tail end of the winter vegetable season in Yuma, Arizona, was devastating for farmers who rely on food service buyers,” said Cory Lunde, spokesman for Western Growers, a group representing family farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. “And now, as the production shifts back to Salinas, California, there are many farmers who have crops in the ground that will be left unharvested,” particularly leafy greens.
He said a spike in demand for produce at the beginning of the outbreak has now subsided.
“People are staying home and not visiting the grocery stores as often,” Lunde said. “So the dominoes are continuing to fall.”
Some farmers have experimented with selling crops directly to customers, with one Florida farmer in Palmetto selling boxes of roma tomatoes for just $5 a box, an amazing bargain in a time of tremendous need. But the sales are well short of what he needs and likely won’t do more than put a dent in his losses. But at least it’s something.
“This is a catastrophe,” said tomato grower Tony DiMare, who owns farms in south Florida and the Tampa Bay area. “We haven’t even started to calculate it. It’s going to be in the millions of dollars. Losses mount every day.”
Florida leads the US in harvesting tomatoes, green beans and cabbage. Can you imagine what life would be like if tomatoes and tomato sauce prices soared because all of these medium-sized and small farmers around the country have gone out of business? Or if you walked into the grocery store a year from now and there simply weren’t any tomatoes.
It could happen much more easily than you might believe – that is, if not enough is done.