Monterey County growers face 'unprecedented losses' amid pandemic

Nearly 40% of Monterey County growers reported financial losses related to the coronavirus-prompted shutdown. Faced with a drop in demand, they plowed under lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, cauliflower, cilantro, wine grapes, spinach, arugula and more, according to the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner's office.

The $8.5 billion dollar agricultural industry has taken a hit during the pandemic as school cafeterias, restaurants and cafés have shut down nationwide. An April survey conducted by the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner's office showed that vegetable growers are reporting the highest losses so far.

The berry season is not yet in full swing.

“Changes to the marketplace since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders has jeopardized the ability of many farms to remain financially stable, and to date, federal relief programs have offered little in assistance,” Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot said in a county press release. "Specialty crops have been hit hard by changing consumer choices and reductions in restaurant food supply services.”

According to a January study published in the Journal of Nutrition, restaurant meals accounted for 21% of adults' total caloric intake in the U.S. Without that demand, diets have shifted, and it turns out, we tend to eat fewer vegetables – but more fruits – when we eat at home.

Of the 186 vegetable and berry growers contacted for the survey, 62% responded. Survey results showed just shy of 3,000 acres in Monterey County were either plowed under or not planted to begin with. 

Of the growers who responded, 39% reported losses ranging from 5% to 90%. Nearly 20% of respondents said with demand by the hospitality industry all but gone they disked under crops such as lettuce, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, wine grapes, artichokes and lemons. Berry growers did not report losses as the season has yet to hit its peak.

Sixty percent of the survey participants pointed to low demand from the food service industry as a factor in their financial losses.

To combat these losses the Department of Agriculture will soon begin spending $300 million a month – up to $3 billion total – to buy excess produce, milk and meat from distributors and ship them to food banks as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program.

One grower and five coolers in Monterey County had already rerouted produce to food banks, the survey reported.

“The survey is a preliminary look at what is happening and provides information to forecast the future,” said Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales. “A final tally of losses will not be possible until the COVID-19 pandemic passes.” 

Furthermore, 14 growers surveyed indicated they had difficulty obtaining PPE for their workers and faced a shortage of disinfectant supplies. This was an additional, unexpected cost while experiencing what the Agricultural Commissioner's office called "unprecedented losses."

“While this survey reflects only a glimpse of some on-farm economic impacts, we anticipate that in the months ahead the full picture will reveal significant supply-chain impacts,” said Grower-Shipper Association President Chris Valadez. “A longer term perspective will likely demonstrate the extraordinary measures taken by growers, shippers, and processors to protect farm workers while maintaining the continuity of our food supply during this unprecedented pandemic.”

The industry is still figuring out how to protect farmworkers while continuing to operate an essential business. Ag typically relies on workers who pick, weed or pack produce shoulder-to-shoulder and data from the county shows employers may not have been entirely successful.

Monterey County was the first county in the country to create an agricultural agreement protecting employees in the field. In the last week of March, seven agencies signed off on additional worker protections, including training for workers on staying safe at home, mandatory handwashing, added bathrooms and increased distance between workers in the field.  

Other counties in California followed suit, adopting portions of the agreement and Cal/OSHA released its own version. The agreement has been updated multiple times to-date

However, in late April, Monterey County Health Officer Dr. Ed Moreno told reporters that 41 of the then-183 cases of COVID-19 in the county were agricultural workers. 

Health experts say overcrowded conditions, such as the ones agricultural workers live in, can hasten the spread of COVID-19.

"Whenever we leave our homes we’re running the risk of being exposed and exposing someone else," said Moreno. "If there’s no COVID-19 in the home but people are leaving the house and returning, there’s a potential incubation period.

"When someone becomes sick, the question is: can they isolate themselves," said Moreno. If they cannot, or if they are asymptomatic, that could result in transmission of the virus, he said.

As of Monday, the majority of COVID-19 cases were located in the ZIP codes representing east and north Salinas, two areas where many of the 90,000 farmworkers who live and work in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys tend to live. 

The 93905 and 93906 ZIP codes are home to 122 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Monterey County, more than half the people in the county sickened with COVID-19.

By contrast, the only two Peninsula ZIP codes made public in the county data (93955 in Seaside and 93940 in Monterey, Big Sur and Del Rey Oaks) combine for a total of 23 cases.

The Alisal area, located within the 93905 ZIP code, has the highest concentration of coronavirus patients within the county. Here, 64 people have tested positive for the virus. 

This story has been updated to clarify that ZIP code 93940 encompasses Monterey, Big Sur and Del Rey Oaks.

[This article was originally published by The Californian.]