By: Bryant Spivey
Johnston County Extension Director
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all heard discussion and debate about businesses, services, and even personnel that are deemed essential. In March and April there was discussion of the essential nature of those working in agriculture and those working in agriculture being deemed essential. I suspect that it is no surprise to most of you know that farms, farmers, and food are definitely essential. Many of us in agriculture have heard the phrase, “Why do we need farms? I can just go to the grocery store and buy what I need.” Of course we should all know that without farms, farmers, packaging, processing, truckers, retail, etc. there would be no food on the shelves of the grocery store. Contrary to what orange juice commercials have shown, you cannot actually reach into the cooler at the store and keep moving your hand back until you reach the orange orchard.
Food is of course essential to life; we cannot live very long at all without proper food and nutrition. A little research will reveal that most people could live a month or more without food, but afterwards, the adverse effects of starvation begin to mount rapidly. Even today, we all expect that when we go to the grocery store or our favorite local restaurant that there will be enough food for us, even if the toilet paper is gone. We have essentially been spoiled because unless there was a snow storm on the way we could always go to the grocery store and pick up what we needed. In a place like Johnston County, with many municipalities and even grocery stores in rural areas, we are never more than a short drive from restocking the refrigerator and pantry.
However, COVID-19 has caused a paradigm shift with our food supply. Restaurants were closed to those with a desire to dine-in and many places that served food to large groups of people were closed down also. How long has it been since you have eaten at a buffet or been served a catered meal with a self-service food line? Hotels, schools, universities, hospitals, employer cafeterias, and other locations where large numbers of people were fed were immediately changed. I have read that prior to COVID-19 approximately 50% of all food was served or consumed having been prepared at some place other than home. Grocery stores and our food processing system are a bit like the Titanic- it is just not possible to turn on a dime to meet this change in demand. However, at this point there has been an adequate supply of food.
I, myself, have eaten more food at home since March than I have in many years. We have all avoided places that served large groups either by our own choice, or because we had no other option. This major shift in food purchasing has resulted in food shortages in some locations. Grocery stores have seen more customers, and customers purchasing more food items. As a result, sometimes the food items that you would normally purchase in the grocery store are just not available. Sometimes these items have even increased in price.
The reasons for the interruption in food supply are many, however, one primary interruption has been in processing. Much of our processing capacity for food was designed for bulk food purchases. For a family of four, it would be highly unusual to go to the store and purchase 100 lbs. of chicken in 50 lb. boxes. However, a restaurant that specializes in chicken could probably serve that much in 30 minutes or less. Food packaging and processing requirements for restaurants and the food service industry are just different from what most families need to purchase in the grocery store.
You might ask, how has COVID-19 and the changes to our food supply system affected farmers? We do not have dairy farms in Johnston County, however news stories of farmers dumping milk as schools closed were frequently reported in March and April. The cows still had to be milked but schools were not able to serve the milk in ½ pint containers. Additionally, there have been clusters of COVID-19 at food processing and packaging plants. This has caused decreased production in the plant and therefore an oversupply of food products coming from farms to the plants. Local food processors are currently having difficulty finding workers in spite of many workers out of work and paying excellent wages.
Some agricultural commodities can be held for 12 months or more and grains are a great example. Other crops, such as fruits and vegetables, can have a very short shelf life. Vegetable crops were destroyed in some locations because contracts were cancelled and the food could not be processed. This was especially true for those that had contracts tied to the food service industry. In some cases, animals were essentially sold at a huge financial loss to plants that had slaughter capacity and other animals actually had to be euthanized.
Furthermore, countries that would have purchased export goods from US agriculture also slowed their purchases which have driven commodity prices even lower. Within the past month, a major swine producer in our state has announced to their growers their intention to cease production of hogs because it is no longer profitable for the company.
Perhaps we can agree that farms, farmers, farmworkers, and food are essential. If that is the case you may ask next, “What have been the effects of COVID-19 on local Johnston County farms?” Those effects have been quite variable. For those that have lost production contracts for hogs or sold animals at a loss, the results have been devastating. Lower commodity prices affect the bottom line of all farmers and reduced exports mean less demand for the products we grow.
Farmworkers are an extended family of a farmer. They work together, eat together, and spend most of their waking hours with each other. Their success in life is linked to one another. Without the farmworker, the farmer cannot grow the food or product or make a living. Without the farmer, the farmworker would most likely not even be in the US or be earning a decent wage. Without the farmers and the farm workers, you and I would face extreme food shortages. Farmers have been greatly concerned about their workers. They have taken measures to keep them safe by limiting their contact with the outside world. Farms have operated like a bubble as described by some professional sports associations. Farmers have access to PPE, hand sanitizer, thermometers for scanning workers, and safety procedures to keep their workers safe. Fortunately, I am not aware of any COVID-19 clusters to have developed on farms in Johnston County at this time.
There have also been some positive outcomes for agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic. The interest in locally grown food has increased dramatically. Those that operate farm stands selling fresh products have witnessed a surge in demand greater than they could have ever expected. If you are interested in finding locally grown food in our area, please consider visiting the jocogrows.org website or downloading the NC Farms app. These two resources will help you find and connect with your local farmer.
Finally, due to COVID-19 many people have gained interest in growing their own food in a home vegetable garden and food preservation through canning or freezing. The Johnston County Extension Center is an excellent resource to help you in this venture. In spite of all this, farms, farmers, grocery stores and the whole food production system are essential to our health and well-being. Personally, I rest well at night knowing that our farmers, farm workers, and food production system is the most efficient and effective in the world. I continue to trust and believe that we will have food available.