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COVID-19 killing demand for fresh produce forcing some Florida growers to leave product to rot

'It’s a black swan'
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Posted at 7:06 PM, Apr 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-03 19:06:39-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s fresh produce farmers say they face a bleak future as COVID-19 precautions dry up demand.

In particular, Florida’s blueberry crop is getting hit right before peak harvest.

COMPLETE COVERAGE OF CORONAVIRUS

“The coronavirus is something very different,” said Bud Chiles, owner of Jubilee Orchards and son of former Florida Governor Lawton Chiles. “It’s a black swan that has really put a pall over everyone.”

Florida’s Blueberry Growers Association estimates an at least 70% drop in sales compared to this time a year ago. Prices, they say, are down at least 30%.

“It’s across the board,” Chiles said. “It’s not small or large [farms]. It’s everywhere.”

The trouble, retailers and consumers are preferring nonperishables to fresh produce at the moment. Virus protection also shuttering restaurants and other bulk buyers like schools and cruise lines.

As an added gut punch, Chiles said the produce actually getting to grocer shelves is being undercut by cheaper products from foreign nations.

“It’s kind of a double whammy for farmers,” he said. "The coronavirus has accentuated the lack of food security and lack of local control communities have over their food supply."

Florida Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried says growers associations are telling her demand is so low harvesting has become too expensive to justify. Farmers are preferring to leave produce to rot.

“Tomatoes, heads of lettuce and green beans and blueberries and watermelon that just don’t have a market right now… being left on the field,” Fried said. “Take the money that is in our stimulus checks, buy fresh produce and make sure it’s fresh from Florida. That’s the way that we are going to make sure that our economy survives.”

Agriculture is the state’s second-largest industry, behind tourism.

In a letter, Fried is now urging the USDA to use purchase powers to connect state produce with food banks and other meal programs. The money coming from $9 billion set aside in the recently passed CARES act.

“We need to be making sure we’re taking care of our state,” she said. “Taking care of our farmers and our economy.”