Yuma’s winter agriculture season usually ends around April but this year it ended a few weeks early.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to industry shutdowns that spoiled the market for commercial fresh produce.
Farmers in Yuma say they had to destroy acres of lettuce, some already packaged for shipping. The impacts of the pandemic on farmers will continue into the new growing season.
When the impacts of the pandemic were first felt widely in March, schools and restaurants closed. Big events like weddings, expos, meetings and conferences were postponed or, more often, cancelled.
Airlines and other commercial produce buyers stopped buying lettuce as entire industries shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Demand from consumers just completely fell off," said Matt McGuire, the Chief Agricultural Officer for JV Smith Companies in Yuma.
Standing next to what will soon be a field of romaine lettuce, McGuire says individual sales of lettuce and other produce went up during late March and early April, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the big drop in commercial orders.
“It was kind of a two edged sword, retail sales picked up an extra 10 to 15 percent but food service including restaurants, schools and cafeterias fell off 30 to 40 percent," McGuire said. "Food services is the half the business we do and retail is the other half.”
And there were still crops in the ground.
“When the COVID hit, there were plenty of fields at the end of season we had to disk,” McGuire said.
That means the crops, mostly lettuce, were destroyed in the fields.
Lettuce that had been harvested for commercial sales was destroyed too. There was no market for it.
Paul Brierley of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture says about half the crops, at least the ones for salad plants for food service, were destroyed in March when they were still in the ground.
“Growers went through this phase of big demand and then, all of a sudden, virtually no demand," Brierley said. "So at the end of the season, about half the crops, at least the ones for salad plants for food service, about half the crop was just disked in.”
That’s in line with losses due to COVID-19 across the nation. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reports that from March to May, the cost of food and ag products lost could top $1.32 billion. Brierley says just one farmer here who grew for food service salad plants was losing about $50,000 to $100,000 a day by disking fields instead of harvesting them.
The good news, Brierley says, is the pandemic hit toward the end of the ag season. Since then, growers have had time to step up health and safety measures like a limit to the number of farmworkers on buses, mask requirements and extra hand washing stations.
John Boelts, owner of Desert Premium Farms stands in front of a melon field on a windy September morning in the Gila Valley area east of Yuma.
Boelts says safety has always been a concern for local growers – whether it is the safety of the food consumers buy and eat or a safe environment for his employees. He said the pandemic has highlighted the fact that the number of farm workers available is inadequate for how many are actually needed.
“These are interesting times," Boelts said. "We’re all going to get through this by following good guidelines and good science. Agriculture is a business based on science and we’re tied to it just like we’re tied to the soil and natural resources that we bring to bear to put food on people’s tables.”
It almost doesn’t matter what consumers want or if COVID-19 were to disappear today.
As socially distanced workers prep his empty field for its first lettuce crop of the season, Matt McGuire of JV Smith says the upcoming ag season is a guessing game.
“If all of a sudden somebody waved a magic wand and the country opened up tomorrow, there’s not enough produce in the ground because everybody’s cutting back to what current reality is and everybody’s guessing on when the business will come back and planning appropriately,” McGuire said.
At least for the upcoming winter ag season, the lessons and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for growers will continue.