By Clint Thompson
Already a difficult production season for Florida’s fruit and vegetable producers, some are unjustly being criticized for trying to manipulate the market and get government handouts, says Gene McAvoy, UF/IFAS Extension agent emeritus.
He defended growers and their farming operations amid scrutiny about criticism for not being more gracious with their crop.
“It is a very complex and tragic situation. It is easy to make suggestions without a thorough understanding of the matter,” McAvoy said. “What many people fail to realize is that picking, packing, cooling, storing and transporting vegetables costs money, and growers who have already lost millions of dollars are understandably reluctant to throw good money after bad.”
Many farmers have had to disk their produce in the field because markets have dried up due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. McAvoy said the collapse of the food service sector affects 60% to 80% of fresh vegetables produced in Florida.
“Not only can’t they afford to harvest the crop, they can’t afford to maintain it irrigate, fertilize, and spray for pest and diseases. Without these inputs, crops rapidly deteriorate and become a breeding ground for insects and diseases and threaten the small percentage of nearby crops for which a market remains,” McAvoy said. “Destruction of the crop prevents this from happening and protects the remaining fields.
McAvoy pointed out that many farmers have donated to local food banks and Meals on Wheels programs. They have been overwhelmed with demand due to a rise in unemployment. Here are a few examples:
- Over the past few weeks, Wish Farms in Hillsborough County, Florida has donated 220,000 pounds of fresh strawberries — equivalent to 241 pallets/nine semi-trailer loads — to feeding Tampa Bay and the United Food Bank in Plant City, Florida.
- Growers in Immokalee, Florida donated more than 3 million pounds of vegetables to the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, “overwhelming their ability to store, transport and distribute the produce,” McAvoy said.
- Farm Share, a food-distribution non-profit organization, works with more than 2,000 food pantries, churches, schools and other nonprofits throughout Florida. The agency is running at maximum capacity, despite having 25 refrigerated trucks, six warehouses between 10,000 and 35,000 square feet and nearly 50 drop-sites from Jacksonville to Florida City, Florida.
- Pacific Tomato Growers recently donated 42,000 pounds of tomatoes to Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee, helping supply 100 food pantries and agencies,
- DiMare Farms donated 400,000 pounds of tomatoes to Florida food banks
- U.S. Sugar provided more than 120,000 servings of fresh, locally-grown green beans to South Florida churches, healthcare providers and food banks.
- RC Hatton has been a generous donor of green beans, sweet corn, and other crops to Feeding South Florida
“Very few people comprehend the quantities of food we are dealing with, this time of year at the peak of harvest. Growers in South Florida collectively ship 50 to 60 million pounds of vegetables across the country,” McAvoy said. “With the closure of hotels, restaurants, schools and cruise ships, sales have declined as much as 80%.”
Vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash are highly perishable with a shelf life of only 7 to 10 days under ideal conditions. Heading into the fourth week of this crisis, much of what was in the field is ruined.
“Farmers work hard to grow this food, putting in a lot of time, money and sweat equity. Nothing breaks their hearts more than to see their efforts go to waste,” McAvoy said. “If people really want to help, they can help in the recovery effort through cash donations to food banks so that they can finance efforts to recover this food before it spoils.”