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Don’t Worry About Supermarket Shelves. Worry About Farmers.

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on milk sales, the seasonal labor force, restaurant contracts, and more.

Juana Gonzalez worries about being an agricultural laborer in the time of Covid-19. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

For longtime central Michigan farmer Bob Thompson, the coronavirus comes at a particularly bad moment. “It has been a tumultuous period these four or five years in agriculture. It has pushed many smaller farmers to the brink of bankruptcy,” he told me. “I fear that it’s going to be considered the last nail in the coffin … it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The ongoing coronavirus epidemic has shifted American markets, changed typical spending patterns, and closed international borders. While industry experts promise it has not led to a food shortage in the United States—despite the empty supermarket shelves—it is adding a lot of uncertainty to the food and farming industries and could tee up a long-term crisis down the line.

“Clearly, not knowing is hard to take: not knowing whether or not you’re going to have a market for a crop and not knowing the extent of this virus and the resulting economic impact across the board,” said Thomspon, who is head of the Michigan Farmers Union. “They say the stock market doesn’t like uncertainty. Farmers don’t like it, either.”

Like the seasons, the agriculture industry runs on a set schedule. Crops are typically planted in the spring, picked in the summer, and then sold to distributors or local retailers, from which food eventually gets to your plate. But signs are emerging that the coronavirus could cause a substantial disruption to this process, starting with getting crops out of the field.

Most fruit and vegetable farms require human pickers to bring crops to harvest. In the U.S., a large portion of those workers are seasonally employed from Mexico. About 90 percent of the annual migrant worker population comes from the country’s neighbor to the south on a very limited seasonal visa known as an H-2A. For years, agricultural communities have argued that more of these visas should be granted by the U.S., and this year farmers worry that coronavirus restrictions could mean even fewer pickers and therefore less crop to bring to market—especially for the fast-approaching cherry season.

“A couple years ago we had a decent crop, and getting enough labor to pick the cherries and process was even a problem then,” said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation in California. “This is something we’ve never had to deal with, a pandemic of this nature.”

U.S. consulates in Mexico are closed indefinitely, which means a suspension of in-person interviews for the H-2A visa program. If that doesn’t change, only seasonal workers who have received worker visas in the past can come to the U.S. this harvest.

“It’s the difference between getting to a crop when it’s ripe or not being able to pick it and it rots in the field,” said Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Then there’s the question of what sales will be like for the commodities that do make it to market. Already some farmers and ranchers who rely on direct sales of their wares to restaurants or schools are suffering from mandatory closures across the country. In California’s Bay Area—the first U.S. region to deploy an official shelter-in-place order—many of the local farms that typically sell to farm-to-table restaurants or to the tech companies that provide free meals to employees are having to find new outlets for their food. Those farmers are struggling with an unusual surplus.

“People are cooking at home and not going to restaurants as much, so if the farmers had regular purchasing set up with restaurants, they lost those sales,” said Gail Hayden, director of the California Farmers Market Association, which runs markets in 14 northern California cities.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Americans typically spend the majority of their food income outside the home at restaurants, not on groceries. And for many farmers, it’s not easy to find new buyers at supermarket chains. One outlet still open to local farmers is farmers markets, which states like California have deemed essential. Hayden, along with others, is working to make that a unified designation across all 50 states.

“If somebody had asked me a month ago if there was going to be a glitch in our food system, I would have never guessed it. But something like this has put a huge spotlight that we have to rely on our roadside farmers,” she said. “What’s the fastest way to fill shelves? Local farms.”

Dairy farmers are facing a similar market disruption across the U.S. With schools closed for more than half of all children as a precaution, many school lunch programs have also shuttered. Those food programs account for nearly 9 percent of milk sales, according to Matt Gould at the Dairy & Food Market Analyst newsletter—a significant portion of a market to see terminated. And like fruit already planted in a field, farmers can’t simply turn off a cow’s milk supply.

“Milk production is not something that can stop once it’s going,” Michael Nepveux, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told me. He said he’s heard that dairy farmers in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest have started to receive letters from their dairy co-op boards warning that there’s a chance they’ll need to dump their milk if the market trends don’t soon change.

International markets are yet another conundrum for the agriculture industry. Whether countries overseas reeling from the pandemic will still accept foreign goods remains a giant open question. That’s especially worrisome for the meat and poultry industry: In 2019, nearly 17 percent of all U.S. meat and poultry production was sold internationally, according to Department of Agriculture data. Mexico and Japan are the top export markets for the pork industry. Japan and South Korea are the top two international buyers of U.S. beef. According to Nepveux, 2020 is expected to be the U.S. meat industry’s biggest production year in history. But a lack of foreign sales could mean a surplus on the U.S. market and therefore falling commodity prices. “The biggest confusion is what happens when countries we’d export to or import to shut down inside for months at a time. Same across the U.S.,” said Nepveux, suggesting at least one quarter could experience a decline in trade due to a winnowing of consumer spending habits.

All of these unknown variables the coronavirus brings are yet another challenge for farmers who’ve already suffered from increasingly variable weather patterns, as well as the Trump administration’s trade wars. Thompson said the stress is getting to Michigan growers he knows, some of whom struggle with depression, drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts. Pre-coronavirus, he was in the midst of organizing a monthly lunch for local growers, as a way to offer a friendly social setting for those whom he described as naturally socially distanced due to their work. That plan has been put on hold for the foreseeable future. “Now we can’t provide that human touch physically that some desperately need,” Thompson said.

Asked what the best-case scenario might be for farmers during the current pandemic, Thompson was at a loss. “The problem is you can’t go back in time, you have to go forward,” he said. “Farmers aren’t different from anyone else. We want to see a quick resolution, but that doesn’t appear on the horizon. It’s nice to be optimistic, but reality has to set in, too.”