BELLE GLADE — In the early morning hours of March 17, forklifts buzz in and out of the back of tractor-trailers docked at warehouses located just south of Lake Okeechobee. While other businesses in Florida are shut down or limited due to the coronavirus, the workers at these warehouses are helping ship one of the products that Americans wouldn’t be able to live without — food.
The farmers who grow the crops, workers at the distribution warehouses and truckers who deliver the produce are all full steam ahead as much of the rest of the economy is frozen by the social distancing required to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A few hours after those workers started loading and unloading products, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that for the next 30 days all bars and nightclubs in Florida would be closed, while restaurants would be restricted to 50% occupancy.
Farmers are aware that with fewer people eating at restaurants, many will turn to cooking food at home.
“As demand for food increases, farmers in South Florida are doing all they can to continue providing healthy fresh food for consumers,” said Michael Bast, director of sales for Green Circles Farm. “They don’t stop. With restaurants working at 50% capacity and some establishments closing entirely, we expect consumers’ needs for produce in the retail aisle to increase. Farmers, truck drivers and everyone else that makes up our industry is stepping up to the plate to meet this increased demand.”
Truck drivers delivering food and medical supplies received some regulatory relief from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) on March 15. In order to help deliveries get to stores and medical centers faster, the FMCSA announced it was temporarily suspending hours of service rules for truckers.
“This declaration will help America’s commercial drivers get these critical goods to impacted areas faster and more efficiently,” said FMCSA acting administrator Jim Mullen. “FMCSA is continuing to closely monitor the coronavirus outbreak and stands ready to use its authority to protect the health and safety of the American people.”
Previously, drivers couldn’t drive beyond the 14th consecutive hour and couldn’t drive after 60 to 70 hours on duty in seven or eight consecutive days. After a driver has returned to their normal work and is no longer providing direct assistance, he or she must have at least 10 hours off duty. These suspended rules only apply to drivers providing direct assistance that will support emergency relief efforts, including delivering medical supplies and equipment, food for emergency restocking of stores and supplies supporting the prevention of the spread of coronavirus.
But there is one area of concern.
Late in the day on March 16, U.S. officials announced that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and all U.S. consulates in Mexico would suspend routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services until further notice to combat the spread of the virus. The agriculture industry relies heavily on immigrant laborers who come into the country through the H-2A visa program. That lack of immigrant labor coming into the country could cause supply issues as farms enter planting season.
“The decision to halt visa application processing in Mexico will restrict the number of immigrant workers being allowed to enter the country,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Under the new restrictions, American farmers will not have access to all of the skilled immigrant labor needed at a critical time in the planting season. This threatens our ability to put food on Americans’ tables.”
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is aware of the issue and has publicly pledged to work with the State Department to ensure needed farm laborers are safely admitted.
“Food is essential all year round, but in the face of a pandemic it is critical the shelves remain stocked and supplies remain plentiful,” said Secretary Perdue in a statement on March 17. “America’s farmers and ranchers, and those on the front lines in the food service industry are doing their part.”
Last year over 290,000 immigrant workers were approved under the H-2A guest worker program.
“We will remain watchful and vigilant to ensure U.S. agriculture and others in the food supply chain are able to continue feeding America as we do 365 days a year,” concluded Mr. Duvall. “We are in close communication with our state farm bureaus, Congress and the administration as we all work together to protect our food supply and our communities in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.”