Pandemic causes millions in losses to Florida agriculture

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From alligators to zucchini, Florida agricultural is “literally the A-Z of commodity production in the United States,” according to Christa Court, PhD, assistant professor with the Food and Resources Economic Department with University of Florida.

On Feb. 17, Court led an online webinar about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Florida Agriculture. Florida farmers produce 200 to 300 commodities. Florida is home to 47,000 farms on 9.7 million acres that employ about 138,000 people, producing about $10 billion in revenue each year.

She said the Food and Resources Economic Department has analyzed the impact of natural disasters such as hurricanes in the past. “Once the pandemic started to induce shutdowns in the state of Florida last spring, we were asked to assess the impact on agriculture,” she explained. The COVID-19 pandemic was a different kind of disaster for Florida agriculture, she said.

“We had a very different situation with COVID-19,” she said. While the pandemic did not affect the production of food commodities, it affected food distribution.

In an average year, Americans spend 54% of their food dollars away from home, she said. With COVID-19, due to the effect of social distancing, physical distancing and shut down orders, demand for food in places like theme parks and restaurants declined almost overnight.

For example, roughly 80% of the tomatoes produced in Florida go to the hospitality industry, she said.

The pandemic caused a major disruption in the food distribution system.

South Florida provides much of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed throughout the winter along the East Coast, she said. Immokalee alone ships 400-500 semi trailer loads of vegetables each day March to mid-May. That equates to 15 to 17.5 million pounds of vegetables every day during the harvest season.

The drop off in demand by restaurants and schools and the increased demand in grocery stores was a complete mismatch for the food delivery systems that were in place, she continued.

As a result, crops were rotting in the field in some areas while grocery shelves were empty in others.

Data collected for the University of Florida survey included 729 responses from agriculture operations and 319 responses from commercial fishing.

She said some reported 100% losses in the first few months of the pandemic. Businesses that were able to pivot faster to supply a different market wound up doing better.

She said agriculture revenue was down for all categories, with total pandemic-related losses to Florida agriculture around $895 million.

Revenue from beef cattle sales was down 36% in part due to covid-related issues at meat packaging plants which decreased the demand for cattle. Commercial fishing revenue was down 57%.

Sales of clams and oysters were especially hard hit with revenue down 75%. Most people consume seafood away from home, she explained. Commercial fishing revenue losses were between $24 million and $28 million.

Court said they are still continuing the analysis of the data. They are also looking for the stories behind the data.

“It became clear in the pandemic these numbers were not telling the whole story,” she said. Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University are continuing to collect interviews to find out the stories behind the data.

She said they also have USDA funding for a project about the lessons learned from COVID-19 and how to position a regional food supply to better adapt to the changes required to address future pandemics, natural disasters and human-made crises.

The US food supply changes needs adjustments to be adaptable in order to deal with something like this again, she said. Education for the public and for businesses in order to make them more flexible would also help soften the blow of future disasters.

Those interested in being interviewed about experiences with COVID-19 may contact David Outerbridge by emailing douterbridge@ufl.edu.

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