MONTEREY — Congress has urged federal officials to provide greater assistance to farmers producing specialized crops amid the coronavirus pandemic, potentially impacting Monterey County farmers set to harvest leafy greens, fruit and flowers.
In a bipartisan letter sent earlier this week to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) led lawmakers to target assistance for farmers growing fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture, outlined by federal law as specialty crops.
“Such relief will not only help producers who are facing significant financial challenges but also support efforts to provide food and nutrition assistance to the most vulnerable members of our communities,” lawmakers wrote in the joint letter.
Specifically, the congressional request includes asking the USDA to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for federal nutrition programs and supplementing dollars from customers unable to fulfill crop purchases due to the crisis. It also asks for expedited implementation of recovery and stability plans, as well as using carryover funds from the previous fiscal year to address the needs of the specialty crop industry.
And by relaxing regulations under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, which oversees business practices for fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, the representatives asked the USDA to better respond to the emergency for specialty crop growers.
As lead author, Panetta’s district encompasses Monterey County, which produces the majority of leaf and head lettuce, as well as celery in the U.S., along with significant production of broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries and spinach, among other goods. The district also stretches to significant agricultural producing areas in Santa Cruz, San Benito and southern Santa Clara counties.
Local agricultural leaders and elected officials have already put out advisories for worker protections to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as leafy greens and berries are set to be harvested in the coming weeks. While Monterey County has issued shelter in place and Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered a shelter at home, agricultural workers are deemed essential and exempted from the orders.
Farmworker advocates and academic researchers, though, have cautioned about protections for farmworkers. In a Monterey Herald guest commentary, Brenda Eskenazi, a UC Berkeley public health professor and lead researcher of the “CHAMACOS” study, called for more sanitizing, testing and education for workers, along with childcare support and access to replacement income programs.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us how interconnected we are and how vital farmworkers are to the health of all of us,” she wrote along with Dr. Pedro Moreno, a local physician, and Aaron Voit, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. “In our moment of need, we are again reminded of their hard labor and sacrifice. Now they need our help.”
Because production is moving from growing regions in southern California and Arizona back to the Central Coast, any direct impacts to the nearly $4.3 billion local agricultural economy have not been felt yet, industry leaders say.
Monterey County Farm Bureau President Norm Groot said farmers are not seeing losses yet but added “there’s a general concern letting farmworkers know they can still report to work. Farmworkers are essential.” Nevertheless, Groot commended Perdue’s work in supporting the local agriculture industry.
Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said in an email that the pandemic has been causing market disruption, where demand has declined for products normally destined for food service. For example, the overall demand for leafy vegetables has declined as hospitality sectors have shuttered across the country, though people are still buying in grocery stores.
“That disruption is causing farming operations to closely evaluate harvest plans, which are driven by customer demands,” Valadez wrote. “The good news is that by and large, the volumes are there, the crops are being harvested and they will be ready for harvest to meet the marketplace demand.”
However, flower growers are already seeing “staggering losses,” according to the California Cut Flower Commission and Certified American Grown Flowers, a coalition of U.S. flower farms. California leads the nation in producing cut, bulb and potted plant flowers.
The commission said flower growers in a conference call last week reported their business is struggling amid the pandemic. The commission said many grocery stores and distributors are canceling orders or turning deliveries away, while farmers can’t get flowers transported due to confusion about which products are exempted from restrictions.
“America’s flower farmers, the floral industry and all of their employees are teetering on economic devastation,” said Dave Pruitt, CEO for the California Cut Flower Commission and administrator of Certified American Grown Flowers, in a prepared statement. “These people literally cannot hold on without support from consumers.”
Teresa Matsui, president and CEO of Matsui Nursery in Salinas, said in an email her company’s potted orchids are being impacted because grocery chain customers are prioritizing food, personal care and cleaning items over floral products, dramatically impacting sales. Still, the Salinas nursery is trying to keep people employed by reducing the workweek from 45 hours to 40 hours for around 200 employees while retaining health insurance and other benefits.
“The dropoff in sales leaves us with a lot of mature product we can’t sell, so we have offered our beautiful orchids to local hospitals for their patients and employees,” she wrote. “We are also sending free product to our grocery customers to share with their hard-working employees in the warehouses and distribution centers.”
On National Ag Day Tuesday, Perdue issued a statement celebrating American farmers.
“Now more than ever it’s important that the American people not forget that,” Perdue said in a statement. “Our farmers are resilient, and during these uncertain times they are still working, day in and day out, to produce what’s needed for our growing population.”