Florida’s number 2 industry is severely hurting. But as she works to provide relief, the Florida Democrat says some important lessons have been learned.
With schools, restaurants, hotels and many other food service businesses closing due to the global COVID-19 crisis, the demand for fresh produce has plummeted and Florida’s number two industry is feeling the economic crunch. In fact, this lack of demand is impacting Florida growers so severely, that a new report issued by Florida Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried is estimating crop loss at $522.5 million.
“Florida growers are seeing millions of pounds of locally-grown produce left sitting in fields, unharvested and unused,” Commissioner Fried told The Americano, adding that although it is hard to say how this will impact each individual farmer, the over 47,000 farms of varying size in the state “will and are experiencing significant financial losses.”
Another Round of Relief
But although programs funded through the $9.5 billion CARES Act, such as the Payment Protection Program, SBA loans, and others, have already run out of money, according to Fried, last week the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced another round of relief efforts via a $19 billion relief package for farmers hurt by coronavirus.
Still, Commissioner Fried, the first woman in the position and the first Democrat to hold it since 2001, worries that it may be too late for seasonal crop growers, and that the payment caps cover but a small fraction of losses state producers have already experienced.
“Some of the obstacles we’re facing are ensuring money is getting into the hands of Florida producers quickly,” says Freid, who is communicating with the USDA to request that the disbursements of financial assistance to farmers be expedited.
Freid has also been actively working to ensure that growers have access to alternative markets to sell their commodities, and reports that several actions are being taken to address the problem. These range from creating a new online marketplace that connects consumers directly with farmers, to calling on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and Congress to combat the illegal dumping of foreign commodities into Florida markets during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as opposing the USDA’s decision to allow the import of fresh citrus from China.
“Floridians are learning just how important it is to support Florida producers by buying local. Shoppers are becoming hyper-aware about where their food is coming from, and there’s been a big push to shop local,” she says.
That is the main the reason that Fried launched the Keep Florida Growing campaign and Florida Farm To You commodities list, which is updated daily and where Florida consumers will find easy access to food-related information, including a U-pick farm locator where farm-fresh produce can be found.
“Also, with health concerns peaking as a result of COVID-19, we can expect food safety measures and additional security measures for all workers on the food supply chain to be of particular importance moving forward,” believes the Commissioner, who says she will be looking to experts and health officials for guidance to ensure worker safety. Freid has already issued additional COVID-19 guidance for food chain worker safety including farmworkers to cashiers in both English and Spanish.