‘It’s catastrophic.’ Coronavirus forces Florida farmers to scrap food they can’t sell

A tractor with a 35-foot blade mowed down one million pounds of green beans ready to be picked at R.C. Hatton’s Pahokee fields.

Those crops should have been going to South Florida’s restaurants, cruise ships, school cafeterias, airlines and even theme parks.

Instead, they are going into the ground.

“And I’ve got another one million I can’t harvest that’s going down in the next three days,” R.C. Hatton’s president Paul Allen said.

The total shutdown of the hospitality industry, to stem the spread of the coronavirus, means farmers who grew crops intended for everyone from small, independent restaurants to busy hotels are stuck with millions of pounds of produce that will soon be left to die on the vine.

And even food banks, soup kitchens and rescue missions, which have seen a surge of unemployed workers making hours-long lines for boxes of donated fresh fruits and vegetables, are saturated with farm donations.

“It’s catastrophic,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of the third-generation-owned DiMare tomato company. “It’s a dire situation, and there’s no relief in sight.”


Like many farms, DiMare’s business is split between growing produce for retail outlets like grocery stores and direct to the food-service industry.

When restaurants were ordered shut overnight, about half of his 1,300 acres of tomatoes, mostly in Homestead, had no buyers.

“You’re dealing with a perishable product,” DiMare said. “The clock is ticking.”

Unlike flour or sugar, fruits and vegetables must be harvested, boxed, shipped and sold quickly — or not at all.

With no one to buy the product, R.C. Hatton farms has made the difficult decision to plow under many of its fields.

Harvesting that fruit can cost more than twice as much as simply razing it. Workers who usually make between $15-$17 an hour, paid by the amount they pick, instead earn minimum wage doing field work.

So one million pounds of green beans and four million pounds of cabbage at R.C. Hatton will be churned into mulch in the next few days.

DiMare estimates that by the end of the growing season, about 10 million pounds of his tomatoes will go unpicked.

“It’s devastating for agriculture in Florida,” Allen said. “There’s zero demand, and it’s being left in the fields.”

One option is for the federal government to invoke the power to purchase farm product for use in assistance programs. The stimulus bill Congress passed Friday had $9.5 billion in dedicated disaster relief for farmers.

Some farms, like Pero Family Farms, have been able to reroute its specialty produce, like sweet mini peppers and organic salads, to the grocery stores who are demanding more than usual because many people are now cooking at home.

And some restaurants have even turned to selling this produce online, with local pick up and delivery. One, Threefold Cafe in Coral Gables, turned their seven-restaurant infrastructure into packaging grocery goods from farms and purveyors and selling it directly to the public.

“We have to find ways to get creative,” said Pero’s chief sales officer, Nick Bergstrom.

As millions of pounds of produce threatened to go bad, growers flooded non-profit organizations. DiMare said when Walt Disney World shut its doors, the park filled the food pantries in the Orlando area.

But no one is turning away donations. DiMare donated 400,000 pounds of tomatoes last week alone and plans to donate another million pounds this week. R.C. Hatton similarly has opened up its farm to you-pick and is sending countless boxes of green beans and cabbage to food rescue charities, as much as they can take.

“We absolutely can handle it,” said Sari Vatske, executive vice president of Feeding South Florida. “We can’t get it in and out fast enough.”

The organization, which is part of the Feeding America network, is using its own fleet of trucks and more than 220 local partners to give away more than 2.5 million meals a week from Palm Beach to Monroe counties.

Meanwhile, more people than ever are relying on the donated fresh produce as thousands were laid off from the food industry in the last weeks.

Feeding South Florida is seeing six times as many people coming for donations at its many locations, while its volunteer staff is just a quarter of its usual size. Many are following stay-at-home orders and are afraid of contracting the coronavirus, despite a no-contact system.

“The math is not on our side,” Vatske said.

Meanwhile, the sun sets on crops that grow another day closer to going from food to fodder.

“We have got to get this virus contained,” DiMare said, “or we are not going to get back to close to being normal.”

By: Carlos Frías, Kevin G. Hall
Published March 31, 2020 by The Miami Herald.
For original article, click here.

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