When asking the question of whether or not Coronavirus will affect farmers, for many in our space, the answer is a resounding yes. A degree in virology is not necessary to understand that rural America is not characterized by unique features that make it immune to the disease’s spread. And though this has been clear the entire time, what has been less clear has been trying to understand exactly how coronavirus will affect American Farmers. With farmers facing all kinds of challenges related to their profession—from weather to labor, to profitability—the question of how coronavirus would affect farmers was one that in many ways, waited to be answered.
A month later, as Coronavirus has increased its spread into rural America, the answers to some of our most pressing questions have arrived. As Farmers face significant challenges related to the disease, challenges for them mean challenges for us—not just as a company, but as families, individuals, and yes, consumers.
As we consider the best methods for taking care of our family and professional lives, many farmers are trying to consider the best methods for taking care of us. The problem, however, is that where Coronavirus has produced new problems for many businesses, the disease has amplified the pre-existing problems that are faced by many farmers.
For a long time now, farmers have faced challenges related to profitability and employment. And while these challenges are not new, coronavirus will likely increase people’s awareness of them as more Americans become increasingly knowledgeable of the state of our food supply chains. In many cases, Coronavirus is a complicating factor in agriculture, and for the simple reason that it manages to successfully attack not only the demand for farm produce but also the supply of farmworkers.
Concerning farmworkers, it has been widely reported that many of them are caught in Coronavirus’ path of destruction. The vulnerabilities for farmers, however, are two-fold. The first aspect of it is that field workers are perhaps some of the most difficult positions to fill on a farm—even in good times. With many farmers in agreeance that fieldwork is “young people’s labor,” farmers tend to face challenges when it comes to finding young people to work on the farm, especially when many are pursuing life as professionals in more metropolitan areas. This means that even in good conditions, labor for farmers is already scarce to come by.
For many, the common alternative f stay in business is to rely on migrant labor. As a result, the farming sector is one that overwhelmingly employs immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
To be clear, the fact that farms largely employ immigrants is not inherently problematic. People come to the United States every year to pursue a better way of life, and one of the many places that serve as the first stop for immigrants is an American farm—and the work needs to be done. Even in our home state of North Carolina, of the 80,000 farmworkers that are employed, 50,000 of them are migrants.
But farmers also will tell you that not all of these workers are properly documented. Undocumented workers account for nearly half of all migrant labor in the agriculture industry. In such cases, workers are unfairly paid, live in generally overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and can be subject to random termination. As a result of such treatment, undocumented migrant workers not only face a heightened risk of getting sick but also a heightened risk of termination, as it is not uncommon for many workers who get sick to be sent home if they cannot recover in a matter of days. Because of the threat of losing work due to illness, many undocumented farmworkers tend to work through sickness.
For farmers that aren’t as concerned with ethics, such practices have been common under normal circumstances. But the massive spread of Coronavirus in the United States has threatened the Farm industry’s supply of labor from the migrant population in general—for both documented and undocumented workers. As many overseas are beginning to see the United States as a nation in the throes of a terrible disease, prospective migrant laborers are beginning to reconsider, or postpone, making their trips stateside. While this affects all farmers, the effects on sustainable farmers can be disproportionate—as they already have a smaller labor pool to work from through the H2A Federal Work Visa Program. To make matters worse, the State Department decided to suspend visa processing in the middle of March.
Under this program, 250,000 migrants come to the United States, be fairly paid, and in some cases, receive benefits. Through sponsoring migrant laborers can be more expensive than simply hiring their undocumented counterparts, Seal the Seasons' farmers such as Brett Rhoads and Billy Carter are proof that there are farmers committed to the ethical employment of farm laborers—wherever they may come from. Additionally, our farmers are proof that ethical and sustainable hiring practices can happen in a variety of ways: Some of our farmers hire predominantly American workers, such as Jeff Bender at Bender Farms. Other farmers rely on family, such as Sean Obrien at Obrien Family farms. But for the variety of ways that employees can remain sustainable, this says very little about the fluctuations in demand farmers may be experiencing as a result of business closures.
Concerning demand, the picture for many family farmers is bleak—and oddly enough, not because people don’t want the food. Over the last 50 years, since the local food movement began to develop steam through the rise of Co-Ops, farmers began to see an increasing demand from businesses and restaurants that wanted to offer their patrons food that was locally sourced. Relative to co-ops, the popularity of the sustainable restaurant is a more recent phenomenon. If we had to place a date on it, this trend in the restaurant business is likely no more than 20 years old. But as eating out sustainably has reached its apex in the modern-day for those that can afford it, this has also meant that farmers have increasingly relied on burgeoning local eats foodie scenes that have gradually cropped up in their areas.
With sit down restaurants being closed nationwide, this has meant a bottoming out of demand, and income, for many family and boutique farms. Because they no longer have buyers for their produce, many are beginning to dump their stock as fruits, vegetables and dairy are all being left in fields to rot. In cases where farmers may potentially have buyers, it is unclear for many if they will even have the ability to ship their product, much less sell it. With coronavirus limiting the normal functions of the shipping and trucking operations that farmers may rely on, sometimes the issue is as simple as lacking the truck to take produce to market.
For farmers that are looking to pivot towards grocery stores, the challenges can be invariably more complex. Though many farmers may meet the qualitative standards of grocery stores, business is further complicated due to volume, display and packaging standards that may be imposed by the marketplace.
This is to say that during these times, the issues farmers are currently facing could not only have direct implications for what we see on the shelves in the coming weeks—but also the coming months as well. It takes time to grow food, so whenever things turn back on, it is likely that they will still be far from normal… At least, for a while. Furthermore, despite any desires some farmers may have to shift over to grocery stores, the greatest issue many of them face may be getting to the grocery store in the first place.
Fortunately, farmers that work with Seal the Seasons can take advantage of our packaging and display designs, as well as our broad network of grocers from coast to coast. Furthermore, the farmers that we work with are placed front and center on our bags, so you can still associate a name and face with the food that you are eating. Times like these are tough, but ultimately, by committing to sustainability, we can sustain during these times. After all, farmers such as Jeff Bender will tell you that sustainability is more than just whether or not a farmer uses pesticides. it is “the type of farmer, how you are farming, and so forth.” Additionally, it is how farms treat their workers, and the greater stability of a farm’s business model. Ultimately, as a business that specializes in connecting local farmers to local grocery stores via frozen foods, it feels fulfilling to know that what we are doing is materially helping the stability of family farms and preserving the dignity of farmworkers.