How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect California’s agricultural sector—which is important for food supplies locally, nationally, and in many other countries? We talked to Cannon Michael—a sixth-generation farmer and member of the PPIC Water Policy Center Advisory Council—about the pandemic’s potential to disrupt farming.
PPIC: What risks does the virus bring to California’s farm sector?
CANNON MICHAEL: For most farmers, the immediate focus is on our workers—not only keeping them safe from the virus, but also being mindful of the pressures they’re facing at home right now. Most of our workers can’t work from home. Many have kids out of school or partners who’ve lost their jobs.
The big concern going forward is the virus going through our workforce. The disruptions of food supply we’re seeing in stores right now is caused by changes in buying habits and difficulty keeping shelves stocked. But if there’s disruption on farms—if crops don’t get harvested in time or the logistics for getting food to market go down, that would be much scarier. We’re already facing labor uncertainty due to changes to a visa program that allows workers from Mexico and Central America to come here for seasonal farm work. Many of California’s larger farms rely heavily on this temporary labor force. In the early days of the crisis, the H-2A visa program was restricted so that only workers already in the program last year were allowed to come back this year. Rule changes and congestion have made getting across the border harder, too. We’re seeing a slowdown of workers at a time when we may need more. That’s a real concern for the food supply.
There’s a finite pool of people living here to do the hand work required on the state’s farms. There’s a risk that the large companies will do whatever it takes to get those folks if they can’t get seasonal laborers. It could be a threat to smaller farms if larger entities start to pull workers away using incentives that smaller farms can’t match.
The disruption of markets—such as the closure of restaurants and food service operations—is a huge concern for growers. Impacts will vary by region, commodity, and individual company exposure. Western Growers reports that some farmers are heavily embedded in the food service supply chain with crops in the ground now. They have nowhere to put that food, because other growers with retail channels for those commodities are operating at maximum capacity and can’t take any more product into their systems. Other farmers say they may need to scale back acreage. Some crops could be affected by changing international markets or the general financial downturn. There’s the potential for huge swings in marketability and profitability for many farmers.
We’re also not sure if there will be any new requirements for food safety in coming months. There are already good protocols in place for food safety that anyone involved in fresh produce has to comply with, and farmers are accustomed to these high standards. The good news is that food safety experts say there is a low risk of getting the virus from food products or packaging. The advice from the experts is that normal food safety practices will suffice.
PPIC: What steps are being taken to protect farm workers from infection?
CM: We are rapidly approaching the time when most farms will be extremely busy, which means a lot of people on the farm. New state guidance on protecting farmworkers from COVID-19 is being developed. But most farmworkers live in very close conditions and so even with safe practices on the farm, it’s going to be harder to control the risk in their homes and communities under current conditions. If the virus gets into the farmworker population I think we’d see a very fast rise in infection, which would have a dramatic impact on the farm sector and food supply.
On our farm we’re providing regularly updated health information in all the places that people congregate. The California Farm Bureau and industry groups have reacted quickly to make information available in English and Spanish. We’re making sanitation equipment widely available, and presenting guidelines on hand washing and social distancing.
PPIC: What policy changes could help address these risks?
CM: Fixing federal immigration policy is critical. The key point is we need to get food off the farms, and to do that we have to have enough laborers. One hopeful sign is that the federal government recently announced it will relax the new restrictions on the H-2A program. That should help people get here to work.
It’s also critical that rural communities aren’t forgotten in this public health crisis. We need a plan to address the special public health challenges in farm communities.
I don’t want to pound people over the head with this, but the crisis really drives home the importance of agriculture and the value of a stable food supply.
And I’d just like to encourage everyone to reduce the panic buying, which has created big challenges in the supply chain as well as making it harder for more vulnerable people who can’t shop that way. We will produce the food and get it to the markets but we will all be safer if people just buy what they need.