Ga. farmers feel pain of coronavirus shutdown ahead of harvest

Georgia farmers are suffering in the COVID-19 outbreak and it’s still early in the harvest season. Georgia’s famous Vidalia onions started shipping out to stores Thursday, and one of the state’s top crops – blueberries – is nearly ready to be picked. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Dept. of Economic Development

Restaurant dining rooms across the state are closed, school cafeterias are empty, and those once hurried after-work trips to the grocery store – and the impulse purchases made along the way – now feel like an extravagance from bygone days.

And the sidelining of the food service industry brought on by COVID-19 has caused ripple effects that are already painfully felt down in southwest Georgia, where dairy farmers have poured their milk down the drain and produce growers are uncertain they’ll have buyers for their crops once they harvest them.

By the time the outbreak hit Georgia, Kent Hamilton’s spring crops were already in the works.

More than one-third of the Colquitt County farmer’s produce usually winds up in those now-idled restaurants, schools and other food service industry mainstays. Now, he’s left anxious about his ability to sell the cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and sweet corn that will soon be ready in his fields.

“It’s really hurt our business. We’re just in survival mode now,” said Hamilton, who is the CEO of Norman Park-based Southern Valley, which is a year-round producer that also grows vegetables in Mexico and Tennessee.

Already, the southwest Georgia vegetable farmer has donated about 300,000 pounds of excess cabbage, squash and zucchini to local health care workers and food banks, which are struggling to meet the skyrocketing demand for aid.

And it’s still early in Georgia’s harvest season. Georgia’s famous Vidalia onions started shipping out to stores Thursday, and one of the state’s top crops – blueberries – is nearly ready to be picked. By May and June, Georgia’s harvest season will be well underway.

Hamilton hopes buyers will be hungry for his vegetables when the time comes so he won’t have to resort to drastic measures, like tilling the season’s bounty back into the soil as some farmers have done.

“I’m concerned about being able to sell everything that we have,” Hamilton said this week.

Farmers started out the year scrambling to find enough migrant workers to harvest their crops after federal officials paused the H-2A guest worker program amid the outbreak. Now, they’re worried buyers won’t be there when it’s time to take their produce to market so they can pay their bills, including those worker wages.

“They’re getting beat on both sides,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “If they get all their workers and then they can’t sell the product, they have as big a problem as if they can’t get all the workers.”

‘Spring flush’

A southwest Georgia dairy, Providence Dairy, posted videos on their social media showing milk being dumped. Screenshot of Facebook video

The sudden shutdown of the food service industry has already jolted the state’s dairy farmers, who have dumped at least 394,000 gallons of milk since the outbreak started.

For them, the pandemic reached the state just as their cows began to naturally produce more milk – a time known in the industry as the “spring flush.” Now, that phrase has taken on new meaning as farmers watch the milk disappear down the drain.

As their herd’s production ramped up, demand from food service businesses and schools – which represent about half the market for dairy farmers – collapsed.

“You can’t turn a cow off. Once they start producing milk, they’re going to produce that milk every day for about eight months,” said Farrah Newberry, executive director of Georgia Milk Producers. “So, it’s not something you can easily just stop doing.”

Initially, milk at least flew off the store shelves amid the early panic buying, causing retailers to limit the number of cartons each customer could buy to the chagrin of flummoxed dairy farmers desperately trying to move their milk.

With more milk on hand than they can even give away, farmers in Georgia started dumping milk in late March and continued through April 3, with about 70 tanker loads of milk discarded. Last Friday, more milk was wasted but Newberry said she didn’t know how much.

One Decatur County producer, Providence Dairy, poured out thousands of gallons in four different stints and shared hard-to-watch videos on social media showing milk gushing from a pipe.

Until restaurants begin to reopen their dining rooms, dairy farmers will likely continue to struggle with more milk than they can sell, Newberry said. That’s true for vegetable farmers, too.

“When this thing does turn around, we hope that there’s going to be a major buying frenzy when all the restaurants decide to fire back up, the hotels are open back up and people start traveling,” said Sam Watson, a Moultrie vegetable farmer and a Republican state representative. “We’re hoping and praying that that’s going be in June for sure.”

There’s no telling at this point when life will start return to normal and how many businesses are going to be able to hang on the meantime.

“If we get to the point where people have to go out of business or they get rid of some cows because they can’t afford to pour out their milk anymore, we are concerned that we may not have enough milk when everything goes back to normal,” Newberry said.

In the meantime, Newberry said the industry hopes efforts to provide refrigerators to food banks will help increase the capacity to offer milk to those who are food insecure. There is also a push to send home more milk with schoolchildren.

‘We are accepting as many offers as we can’

This uncertainty is playing out as demand intensifies at the state’s food banks, and Gov. Brian Kemp has dispatched National Guardsmen to help bolster the organizations’ efforts to keep up. About one-fifth of the distribution events ran out of food with people still waiting in line in the last half of March.

In Georgia, the prevalence of food insecurity is already higher than the national average, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization. About 1.5 million Georgians — or about one in seven residents — struggle with hunger.

Georgia farmers already contribute excess or unmarketable produce – like that misshapen bell pepper that a shopper would likely shun in the store – to food banks. Last year, they donated about 16 million pounds of produce.

Food banks, though, are limited by their capacity to move the food along to the families in need while ensuring it’s still fresh when it hits their tables.

Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association, said food banks initially saw a spike in donations from the food service industry after indoor dining came to a halt.

That has since tapered off, but with grocery stores unable to accept all the excess produce that would have gone to restaurants and other food service industry businesses, food banks are beginning to hear from overwhelmed Georgia growers – and it’s still early in the harvest season.

“Because of the disruption in the restaurant/food industry business nationally, there is more fresh produce available than our network can absorb,” Craft said Wednesday. “We are accepting as many offers as we can.”