Paul Hatton had to make a devastating choice as harvest wrapped up amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He destroyed millions of pounds of beans and cabbage instead of sending the produce to market.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he told The New York Times.
Thankfully, this is still a rare and shocking exception as America’s food producers and agricultural supply chains have adapted rapidly to market pressures and COVID-19 response measures to ensure essential food supplies make it to American tables. However, this tragic choice is not constrained to just R.C. Hatton farms – farmers and ranchers across the country are facing similar realities.
Our agricultural leaders are taking note and taking action
“Farmers and ranchers are all frustrated with the inability to get their dairy, meat, and poultry products as well as fresh fruits and vegetables into the hands of consumers, especially those consumers most in need of food assistance,” Chairman of the Agriculture Committee Collin Peterson wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“The pictures and videos of milk being dumped and fresh vegetables being plowed into the ground is unsettling to most Americans, but it is heart breaking for those farm families that produced that commodity.”
Hatton, and other farmers, are taking to the airwaves and newspapers to help the public understand the challenges that rural America is facing.
He recently appeared on the Today Show, explaining that even though farms have tons of fresh produce there is simply not a supply chain that can get it to people who need it most. Hatton knows the challenges that can come along with a well-meaning flood of food donations; he donates more than 40,000 pounds of fresh produce every year.
The images of fresh food being destroyed in the wake of a global pandemic even while some are going hungry is hard for most Americans to understand. It seems strange that the food can’t simply be rerouted to stores and markets or given to food banks.
Farmers would love to see their products going to good use. And farmers have already donated millions of pounds of produce to food banks, community centers and frontline workers. But the agriculture industry counts in tons and millions, and delivers products that last only days, making it difficult to create a new supply chain overnight. Food banks, with limited staff and volunteers and not enough cold storage, can only take so much fresh produce.
So, farmers are doing what is necessary to survive. Often that means destroying this season’s crops even as they prepare to plant for next season.
Dairy producers and ranchers are in the same position.
Cattle prices have been dropping since February as the stock market reacted to COVID-19 concerns amid fears consumers would eat less beef in restaurants, The Wall Street Journal reported. The National Pork Producers Council is expecting a $5 billion loss across the industry while the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association expects losses for cattle ranchers to reach $13.6 billion.
“We remain committed to supplying Americans with high-quality U.S. pork, but face a dire situation that threatens the livelihoods of thousands of farm families,” said NPPC President Howard “A.V.” Roth, a pork producer from Wauzeka, Wisconsin. “We are taking on water fast. Immediate action is imperative, or a lot of hog farms will go under.”
Dairies are dumping milk because there is no place to go with it. Why? Big customers – schools and restaurants – are closed and alternative storerooms are full. You can’t simply switch off a cow, so they must be milked every day. Right now, about 5 percent of the nation’s milk is being dumped and that number is expected to increase.
Journalists are starting to pay close attention to farmers and ranchers as consumers remain concerned about food. That’s a good thing even in this time of bad news.
Americans are more removed from the farm today than ever before. We hope this news coverage about the unusual and tragic circumstances that have caused food waste on this scale will help consumers understand where their food comes from and how it is grown and raised. It is just a small percentage of the abundant food supply we are privileged to have in the U.S., but any such waste is too much.
We also hope the story of food supply during the pandemic will highlight the need for strong farm policy in America.
Farmers and ranchers already had a tough couple of years as low prices, bad weather and trade wars took their toll. Many were hoping for a better 2020.
It’s time for the federal government to step up and help farmers and ranchers when they need it most. Secretary Perdue announced on Friday a modest aid package that will bring some relief to the heartland. But we need to provide America’s farmers and ranchers with a comprehensive plan for assistance that ensures farmers and ranchers can continue to provide our nation with essential food and fuel supplies.
We must also maintain a long-term view on farm policy that protects farmers and ranchers now, and when this crisis is over. This must include the protection of robust risk management tools, such as crop insurance, and a thoughtful Farm Bill that continues the policies that support a strong and stable rural America.