(The Center Square) – Florida’s $8 billion agriculture industry is poised to deliver much needed fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products to consumers nationwide but is hamstrung by logistics in getting surplus crops from fields to tables, state farmers said.
As a result, crops are rotting in fields, milk is being dumped and many of the state’s 48,000 farms are floundering financially, farmers told the 30-member Re-Open Florida Task Force Industry Working Group on Agriculture, Finance, Government, Healthcare, Management and Professional Service on Thursday.
The group, led by Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson, an egg farmer in Longwood, is one of four subpanels identifying obstructions to reopening Florida's economy and forwarding ideas to the task force’s 22-member executive committee.
The executive committee is expected to present Gov. Ron DeSantis with a statewide reopening plan by Friday.
A Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) COVID-19 impact report from April 15 calculated the state’s 2020 crop losses exceed $522 million, with green beans accounting for $50 million, zucchini and squash down from $28 a box to $3, and cucumber farmers expecting to plow under $38 million of their languishing crop.
Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA) President Mike Joyner praised President Donald Trump's administration for easing restrictions on H-2A workers to retain needed labor and said, despite the pandemic, trucking has been reliable and available.
The big challenge, Joyner said, is the disruption in the supply chain caused by the swift shutdown of the food service sector. With many farms seeing dramatic reductions in orders from restaurants and institutional food service operators, there is a sudden surplus that is able to be shipped only in “dribs and drabs” from fields to retailers and food banks.
Florida Farm Bureau Federation President John Hoblick said upheavals in logistics is devastating the state’s aquaculture, livestock, poultry and vegetable producers.
Dairy farmers cited an estimated $72 million in milk being dumped because they had no place to ship it.
With the oil market crashing, the price of ethanol has plummeted. As a result, corn crops are withering in the fields or rotting in piles, panel members said.
With most restaurants closed except for drive-thru, delivery and take-out, many farmers’ biggest customers have suspended or scaled back orders, crippling many financially.
Florida Citrus Mutual Director of Government Affairs Matt Joyner said the state’s citrus industry is “treading water” dealing with supply chain and transportation disruptions.
Overall, however, Florida’s citrus producers are faring better than most agricultural counterparts. Sales of Florida orange juice spiked by 40 percent in March over the same period a year ago, according to the Florida Department of Citrus Economic and Market Research.
Panel members praised the Keep Florida Growing platform on the FDACS website, a program implemented by Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Florida’s only statewide-elected Democrat, Fried was not placed on the industry group panel by DeSantis.
Publix Supermarkets announced Wednesday it would purchase Florida-grown produce through the platform and send it to Feeding America food banks across the southeast.
“As a food retailer, we have the unique opportunity to bridge the gap between the needs of families and farmers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” said Publix CEO Todd Jones, a member of the task force’s executive committee. “In this time of uncertainty, we are grateful to be able to help Florida’s produce farmers, southeastern dairies and families in our communities.”
Fried sent a letter April 16 to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, urging him to send $9.5 billion in direct assistance to agriculture. The funds were included in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Fried called on the USDA to “utilize its Section 32 purchasing authority to provide immediate relief to Florida farmers struggling due to market disruptions caused by COVID-19," which, she said, “would allow more local producers to participate in federal feeding programs.”