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One year later: Farmers, food system continue to adapt, adjust

Issue Date: March 17, 2021
By Christine Souza

More than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nation's food-supply system seemingly overnight, farmers, ranchers and others in the food business say the pandemic ultimately showed the system's ability to adapt.

"California agriculture has proven its resiliency, its persistence and its innovation," California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said. "It was a year of pivots and adaptation, and at the farm level, that's what farmers do every day. I'm just very impressed and very proud of how industry, despite that huge and very sudden disruption, was able to continue to do its essential work as part of our critical infrastructure."

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said Farm Bureau acted early last year in meetings with government officials to ensure agriculture and support businesses would be considered essential. He said Farm Bureau also advocated for flexibility to allow products meant for food service to be shifted to retail markets.

Now, a year later, Johansson said Farm Bureau remains focused on the health and safety of employees and feeding local communities.

"Our moral obligation as farmers and ranchers is to feed the world, but in Farm Bureau, really our passion is our communities and making them better, whether that's through job creation or just simply keeping them safe and fed," Johansson said.

For Dan Sutton, general manager of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, "It's hard to hear that it has been a year."

"Reflecting back on a year ago, it was very difficult. Our outlets for our produce changed overnight," Sutton said; POVE supplies produce mostly to retail markets and some food service.

"We've been adjusting and continuing to be nimble for the past year, and so we've been able to maneuver," he said, "but at the very early onset of this, we were just dealing with an incredible factor of unknowns."

Sutton recalled visiting local grocery stores last year and seeing empty shelves: "I remember thinking, 'I've got all this produce ready to be harvested and sold, and the grocery store shelves are empty.'"

Growers of winter vegetable crops were among those who experienced immediate losses when restaurants and other food-service outlets abruptly had to close.

A report last June by Davis-based ERA Economics, commissioned by a coalition led by the California Farm Bureau, estimated pandemic-related losses to California farms, ranches and agricultural businesses would range between $5.9 billion and $8.6 billion.

"We discovered that our distribution channel, which is very complex, had had a pretty significant breakdown and that, on top of markets closing, created a logistical challenge for getting our products from farm to table," Sutton said. "Then people's buying habits changed; people limited the amount of times they went to the store, and that change in buying behavior had an impact on how our produce flows through the system."

Adjustments were made throughout the distribution channel, and supplying retail markets is now working much better, Sutton said, adding that POVE had to shift produce originally intended for food service to go to retail outlets.

California Grocers Association spokesman Nate Rose said before the pandemic, grocery stores had been running very efficiently and keeping less inventory on hand—so when the pandemic hit and people started to stock up on items, bottlenecks in the supply chain caused some delays. Ultimately, he said, the overbuying slowed and shipments caught up.

"At Thanksgiving, we were a little bit concerned about what we might see, but there weren't a lot of hiccups, and part of that was due to the fact that the retailers saw it coming and were more strategic with extra supplies at stores and warehouses," Rose said.

In response to the pandemic, he said he anticipates grocery stores will refine the number of items they carry, limiting the variety of products available and keeping only inventory of higher-selling products.

Restaurants have suffered during the pandemic, and Ross said she believes the impact "will be long felt." She noted many restaurants have increased take-out and delivery, which helped to maintain supply infrastructure. Ross said she believes people will continue to order more take-out and delivery in the future—and said some restaurants incorporated service to food banks as another marketing channel.

California Association of Food Banks director of communications Lauren Lathan Reid said food banks' demand has jumped since last year.

"Our food banks to date are serving about double the amount of households that they were prior to the pandemic," Reid said. "We had about 5 million before the pandemic and now we have about 10 million food-insecure Californians."

During 2020, the association estimated it distributed several hundred million pounds of food to people in need, including through its Farm to Family program, which obtains fresh produce from farmers to supply more than 40 California food banks and pantries.

"Our Farm to Family program has been incredibly successful in working with California's agricultural community to get farm products, particularly excess farm products, to food banks throughout the state," Reid said.

Related to vaccination distribution for farm employees, Ross said more locations will open as vaccines become available, adding that the number of vaccines is increasing each week.

Sutton said the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau, in partnership with the county, expects to vaccinate 500 agricultural employees at a clinic on Friday.

"Being able to take that step releases a huge amount of pressure mentally, and I see that same thing in our workers; there's a little bit of relief in the air," he said. "This is a significant step in the path to recovery."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Related story: Pandemic relief includes farm aid

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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