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Business during COVID-19: Florida's vegetable growers hit hard

A Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services webpage provides a database of farms.
A Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services webpage provides a database of farms.

As America shut down for COVID-19, Florida farmers lost so many markets -- schools, restaurants, cruise ships, theme parks, hotels.

To get a picture of the challenge facing our vegetable growers, I spoke with veteran extension agent Gene McAvoy of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The interview is part of an occasional series looking at how Florida businesses are adapting to the pandemic.

Finding local farm produce

WMFE: I wanted to look at the big picture, if I could, Gene. I wanted to look at what Florida farmers are facing amid this crisis.

MCAVOY: Well, Florida. Florida is No. 2 in the United States in the production of vegetables and, especially this time of year, our farmers supply vegetables to about 150 million people from Miami to Chicago. And the majority of that product goes to what we call food service and that's suppling schools, restaurants, hotels, cruise ships. And that market is huge, it represents 60 to 80% of the vegetables that we sell. And you know with the COVID pandemic all of those have been closed down. So that has eliminated a big portion of the market.

So depending on what aspect of the market the producer is focused on, the impacts vary. You know, some of our small farmers sell primarily direct to retail customers in their local communities. They haven't been impacted very much. As a matter of fact, the demand for some of them has increased as, you know, there's been shortages in supermarkets.

Others, you know, I have small farmers that I work with that grow microgreens, you know, say, that in normal times might be supplying 50 to 60 restaurants with microgreens. That market is dried up. And, you know, some of these crops like microgreens you have a new crop every three weeks. So, you know, they've already lost one crop and, you know, are hesitant to plant the second crop because there's no market.

WMFE: Do you see a way that Florida farmers can survive this crisis?

MCAVOY: Well, I belive they will. I mean farmers are resilient people. You know we've had hurricanes over the past years. You know, Hurricane Irma a few years ago in South Florida caused over $2 billion in losses to the agricultural community and they've come back. It's gonna break some, but most will come back and hopefully we'll get some assistance and get them through a rough patch.

WMFE: Let's say I'm a consumer who wants to buy fresh produce, but not from the supermarket. You know, I used to go to a farmers market and get it. Are there ways that those consumers can find those products now safely?

MCAVOY: Yes. Both the Florida Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida IFAS on their webpages have lists of farmers that are rededicating some of their production. A number of them are now selling what they call mixed produce boxes. So for $10 or $20, you get a box with, you know, some tomatoes and peppers and the beans, whatever they have, cabbage column. So, yes, there's a number of opportunities out there and, as I say, many of them are switching over. In almost every area of Florida there's an opportunity to buy local and try to help farmers get through this rough patch.

Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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