By Teresa Schiffer
It is not yet possible to determine the full impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the world’s economies, industries and social structures, but it is already clear that the global health crisis has had a major impact on almost every segment of society throughout the world. This is particularly true in the case of American farmers, and most notably those raising crops and livestock in Florida. As international borders closed and many domestic businesses and institutions were forced to shut down for at least a month, one thing became increasingly clear — we in the United States are relying too heavily on foreign producers to keep us fed.
The issue of domestic reliance on international agriculture is of special concern to Bud Chiles, a farmer/rancher in the Panhandle who is national director of the “Demand American Grown” campaign (demandamericangrown.org). This organization is committed to educating the public on the importance of agriculture in America and the need to preserve not just large corporate farms in our country but especially the small farms, the family farms, the smaller scale farmers that are often hit the hardest. Recent world events have revealed many flaws in America’s food supply chain.
Chiles explains the effect that the coronavirus crisis has had on our nation’s food producers.
“The pandemic has really underscored and opened the American public’s eyes to a dismal trend that has been occurring in American agriculture for at least six or seven years now, which is similar to what has been going on in other industries, where extreme consolidation and monopoly power has actually led to a small number of companies in the agricultural sales and marketing sector that have been able to essentially gain control of America’s food supply.”
The big problem with this merging of agricultural entities into these few huge corporations is that in order to maximize profits, they favor outsourcing the growing of much of the produce that the U.S. needs to third-world countries. Countries such as Mexico and Peru pay farm laborers pennies on the dollar compared to workers in the U.S., and in most cases, the health and safety regulations regarding things like pesticide and fertilizer usage are minimal or lacking altogether. The bottom line here is that the health and wellness of the American public is being put at risk in order to save money and increase the fortunes of corporate farm executives.
Before the pandemic, U.S. consumers were largely unaware of where the food they bought came from originally. Over the years, the big ag companies have influenced our government, through campaign contributions to certain politicians, so as to dramatically weaken nation-of-origin labeling on food products. Suddenly, various items became scarce as health concerns caused many countries to close their borders, not allowing the free flow of trade. People began to realize that the food they had been purchasing was traveling thousands of miles before reaching their plates, and that it was uncomfortably easy for these avenues of commerce to be suddenly shut down, resulting in real shortages.
American farmers have lost more than 50% of the market share for products such as tomatoes, melons, lettuces, onions, bell peppers and more. The halting of imports means those products are significantly less available at the market. Conversely, many American farmers, and especially those in Florida, found themselves with crops to sell and no markets to sell to, as cruise lines, restaurants and schools closed throughout much of the spring.
The good news here is that since so many farmers and ranchers in Florida were unable to sell their commodities to their traditional buyers, and so many grocery stores were unable to receive stock from foreign suppliers, consumers realized that they could obtain their fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products directly from local farmers. Growers opened their fields to socially distanced you-picks; ranchers began advertising their fare directly to the public; and the public lined up in droves to purchase farm-fresh provisions straight from the sources.
The sad truth is that many small Florida farms will not survive the hit they took because of the pandemic. “The economy of Florida is going to be dramatically affected by the loss of these rural support bases,” predicted Chiles. “When a large tomato farm, 5,000 acres, goes under, you imagine how much fertilizer, tractors, chemicals, labor and all the trucking and packing that really hold the rural economies together in our state, that’s rapidly disappearing. People are beginning to realize and see, what does it mean when there’s not a local farm there that they can count on for their three meals a day?”
Demand American Grown is striving to restore the prominence of the American farmer, and the coronavirus pandemic may have unexpectedly given it the push it needed to truly wake up the population. Americans are now more concerned about where their food comes from, since the further it has to travel the less reliable it becomes. The Demand American Grown label could soon be seen on more and more of the products that we purchase at the grocery store, and that’s good news for all of us.
Teresa Schiffer writes for the Central Florida Ag News. Reprinted by permission of publisher, from June 2020 edition. Go online to centralfloridaagnews.com/a-hunger-for-homegrown/ to read more.