How Farmers Are Keeping Us Fed through the Global Crisis

Around the world, farmers are doing everything they can to prevent the coronavirus crisis becoming a hunger crisis.
May 20, 2020 2:10 PM ET
Blog

In the space of a few weeks, life around the globe has been upended in the wake of COVID-19. Industries of all kinds have been forced to rapidly change how they work, and agriculture is no different.

Farmers are used to adapting to circumstances, whether it’s droughts, floods or infestations of pests. Overcoming unpredictable hurdles goes with the job, but the pandemic is bringing a range of new challenges to growing the food people depend upon. These challenges make it clear that more must be done to enhance the resilience of our food system. To understand these obstacles, we spoke to farmers, growers, producers and industry figures around the world to learn how they are adapting in this unprecedented time.

Dave Puglia, President and CEO of Western Growers, a body representing family farmers across the Southwestern United States, described the sudden onset of the crisis for farmers. "Nobody saw this coming. You can’t plan for it. It hits and you react."

Agriculture requires people. Whether it’s harvesting vegetables, de-tasseling corn, or pruning vines, people are vital in many aspects of farming. Global travel restrictions and isolation orders have become one of the main challenges facing farmers.

Mechanization means many row crop farms can carry out vital seasonal tasks, such as seeding in the northern hemisphere and harvesting in the southern, even with fewer workers. However, for fruit and vegetable farmers, travel restrictions could have a potentially devastating impact.

Harvesting fruit and vegetables requires large teams of people, often working in close proximity, to quickly pick produce just in time for it to be delivered at peak flavor and freshness. Many of the farmers that Western Growers represents are heavily dependent on migrant laborers.

“We are very concerned about the health of our workforce, and our members have been taking steps to keep workers informed and increase hygiene, sanitation and distancing wherever we can,” explains Puglia.

However, for certain crops these measures are just not possible, and some farmers are simply unable to harvest their fields or load produce for transport. The result is substantial food and financial losses. Western Growers is already projecting losses among its members in the fresh produce sector alone as high as $5 billion.For farm workers too, closed borders are taking an enormous economic toll. Umakant Singh’s two hectare farm in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh depends on migrant labor from the neighbouring state of Bihar to harvest horticulture crops and wheat.

However, since March, India’s internal borders have been closed. While for Singh this means longer periods of field work for his reduced team, for migrant laborers it is a grave situation.“Most farm workers come from very poor economic backgrounds and rely on daily wages for their livelihoods,” explains Singh. “They have families to look after, but the lockdown has worsened their situation even more.”

 

Breaks in Supply Chains

Reducing the numbers of employees on sites, to enable safe working distances, is occurring in all kinds of industries. And it is one of a number of factors currently impacting the supply chains that transport food from the fields to our fridges.

The movement of goods between countries is significantly restricted with some borders completely closed. The result is backlogs and waste produce at one end and shortages at the other, which in turn drive up prices for consumers. 

Julio Fernandéz Speroni is an Argentine farmer currently in the midst of harvesting more than 400 hectares of soybeans, corn and wheat. But with many ports in Argentina only operating at around 50% of their normal capacity, there is a limit to how much of Speroni and other farmers’ crops are able to make it onto ships to be exported or transported around the country.

“Farmers need to be able to sell about 30% of their crops during the harvest to bring in money to pay contractors and wages,” he says. “In most places that’s not going to be possible, so there will be a financial struggle over the coming months.”

Speroni doesn’t foresee major losses yet, but the amount of soybeans and corn that can be stored as dry grains at his farm is limited. “Right now, 50% of my harvest is ready at the farm,” he says. “If transport restrictions aren’t lifted by mid-May, I’m going to have issues.”

However, in markets where products are perishable, such as fruit and vegetables, supply chain disruptions have an even greater impact. Not being able to quickly get food from the field to consumers can result in massive levels of food loss and wastage, with many farmers poised to suffer.

 

Rapidly Shifting Markets

In the United States, roughly 50% of every dollar spent on food goes to into the food service industry, including restaurants, hospitality and schools. However, with orders cancelled overnight as businesses shutter, perishable producers are now trying to transition to supplying retail buyers, such as grocery stores.

This is not always possible, with consumers using different ingredients at home than those used by restaurants to prepare meals. Moreover, after initially high sales during early waves of panic buying, consumers in the U.S. are buying less fresh produce and more processed and canned foods with longer shelf lives.

This, combined with more farms competing to supply fresh produce, is driving down market prices. “The marketplace is very confused, and it will be for some time,” says Puglia. “The magnitude of the losses from our farmer members is pretty staggering.”

The effects of the food service and hospitality industry effectively closing down is having a truly global impact. In India too, Singh said the local vegetable market is being rocked by the crisis.“

Vegetable prices are severely affected as most of the bulk buyers are local hotels, restaurants and tea shops who buy green chillies in bulk,” says Singh. “With restaurants being shut, there is no demand.”The economic effects of COVID-19 are also being strongly felt by the Capurso family, who own a 15-hectare vineyard on the outskirts of Verona in Northern Italy. Travel restrictions and distancing orders mean the family is currently unable to bottle its wine as the process uses an outside service.

And with Italian restaurants and wine shops remaining shuttered, the Capursos are also prevented from supplying their business customers or operating the hospitality side of the winery business.“Coronavirus is affecting our farm in a devastating way, in economic terms,” says Selene Capurso. “Before a resolution is found the most important thought is our family’s health.”

 

Agriculture in Isolation

There are also mental health challenges for farmers and farm workers. Long periods of separation in remote areas are not uncommon in farming, but the uncertainty about when travel restrictions will be eased creates a new set of problems for isolated workforces.

There are also more modern drawbacks to social distancing orders. Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel grows grains, legumes and oilseeds on her farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, that sits 17 miles from the nearest town.“We have two daughters, who are 13 and 11, and fortunately for us we are very sheltered from the pandemic,” says Jolly-Nagel. “We really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else during an event like this.” However, while having her daughters there means two extra pairs of hands to help around the farm, it also means their home is now doubling as a classroom.Rural communities around the world often suffer from poor connectivity and that creates a real problem for modern farmers. “We had a terrible internet service before coronavirus, but now we have an increased need to use it for our daughters to do their schoolwork,” says Jolly-Nagel. “It sounds like I’m complaining about not being able to watch Netflix, but it’s a challenge just to conduct business.”

 

Hope for Farming’s Future

It is impossible to predict what the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will be. What we do know is that a more resilient food system is needed to improve agricultural sustainability and help supply chains withstand and respond to future crises. The good news is that agriculture is an industry used to rising to the challenge.The uncertainty about the future makes it very difficult for farmers to plan. How can they make investment decisions without knowing what demand will be when that product is ready to be harvested? Farmers, however, are resilient and hope for a return to new normal.

Jolly-Nagel’s farm is on the same land that her husband’s family has farmed for more than 100 years, and she is optimistic that her farm will one day conduct business as usual again. However, Nagel is concerned that the supply chain for grains and other crops that she grows will be affected permanently.

“This pandemic is drawing attention to importance of the agriculture industry and there may be some long-term ramifications that will affect farmers around the world,” she explains.

Farmers around the world are rising to the occasion to ensure food is still being grown and making its way to our tables