Arizona Edition: Yuma Agriculture Researcher Discusses Pandemic's Impact

May 2, 2020

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the local, state and federal response to it are wide ranging, impacting Yuma's biggest and smallest industries.

On Arizona Edition on KAWC, we'll explore the impacts of the coronavirus on the local agriculture industry, which saw markets drop and inventory destroyed.

The local ag industry contributes billions to the state and local economy. KAWC's Victor Calderón spoke with Paul Brierley, executive director of the University of Arizona's Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.

We're nearing the end of the winter vegetable season, moving to the summer rotation of crops.

The current global situation has been difficult on produce because the market suffered so rapidly, Brierley said.

A lot of what is grown in Yuma County is put into the food services industry. This is bulk packaging, which goes to restaurants, suppliers, airlines, conventions and schools.

On March 30,  Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued a stay at home order. That has been extended to May 15.  Restaurants have switched to a carryout or delivery only model. Some have closed. Airline travel is way down. Public events big and small have been canceled, moving online in many cases. Schools at all grade levels have transitioned to online instruction.

In the meantime, the ag industry and farmworkers are considered essential, obviously critical to maintaining the nation's food supply. But the bulk packaging can't just be repackaged into smaller packaging. And of course produce has a specific shelf life.

"The product was still growing and had to be destroyed because there was no market for it," Brierley said. "Growers went through this phase of  big demand (at grocery stores) and then, all of a sudden, no demand. So here at the end of the season, about half the crops, at least the ones for salad plants for food services, about half the crop was just pitched in because there was no market for it."

Brierley said most of the produce that had to be thrown away was lettuce.

Farmworkers, meanwhile, have been deemed essential workers. Those who come in to Yuma County from Mexico as legal workers on H-2A visas  can cross through the port of entry while non-essential travel is suspended.

Brierley said farmers and farmworkers are continuing already strict measures when it comes to health safety measures. More buses are running, allowing them to sit apart from each other and social distancing is practiced in the fields.

"What helps is that the ag industry already had strict safety measures in place before all this happened," he said.