Alabama farmers and forest industry personnel continue working to ensure a steady supply of food, fiber and timber during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jimmy Parnell, president of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said farmers, like other small businesses, are adapting to weather the economic storm.
“We’re all experiencing COVID-19 and how it’s changed our lives,” Parnell said. “It’s spring of the year in Alabama. Farmers are beginning to plant crops. Baby calves are being born. All those exciting things are happening. They are happening every day, but it’s different. Just like other businesses, our farms are suffering from economic challenges. Prices have been low for a number of years in agriculture and something like this just makes it worse.”
Changing production to meet new retail demand
Stay-home orders have created a shift in consumer demand away from restaurants and toward grocery stores. In turn, food processors are having to adjust, because food items are packaged and processed differently for the wholesale market than for retail customers.
“Restaurants — they buy big packages,” Parnell said. “Most of us, for our family, want a family-sized package. So that has changed the demand significantly. When you’re selling a pound or two at a time versus 100 pounds at a time, it changes that flow of things. So as food has been purchased at a different place, we have seen it change demand, and we’re dealing with that.”
Parnell said news of meat and poultry packers closing or slowing production is affecting farmers, but he assured shoppers the supply chain is strong and safe.
Additionally, Alabama’s two toilet paper manufacturers have ramped up production to meet demand, and distributors are working overtime to keep shelves stocked.
Alabama fruit and vegetable growers innovate, see increased demand
Social distancing requirements mean farmers markets have a different look than usual, such as more space between vendors and the addition of sanitizing stations. Farmers who sell direct from the farm are innovating as well, using drive-thru or car pick-up options and distancing customers at U-picks.
“Some of our farmers that are marketing direct speak of families and groups that are coming to the farm in larger numbers maybe than they’ve seen in the past because kids are out of school. They can run out there and do that,” Parnell said. “(That’s a) good opportunity for them to buy some food that’s really good, really fresh, but also see where it’s grown and meet the farmers. And getting to know those farmers can be a real positive — know that they care about you, that they’re growing a good product, and they are willing to share their farm with you.”
Along with fruit and vegetable farmers, beef cattle and pork producers who sell direct to customers are increasing in popularity.
Sweet Grown Alabama is maintaining a list of member farmers who have produce, meat and other products available. The list includes details on how customers can buy while social distancing. For the list, visit tinyurl.com/findlocalnow.
Saving perishable farm products and helping food banks
Fortunately, thanks to increased demand for early fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, lettuce and broccoli, there is no widespread issue in Alabama with crops spoiling in the field. Alabama has many small-scale, diversified fruit and vegetable farmers, meaning they grow a greater variety of produce on fewer acres than other states. Additionally, Alabama fruit and vegetable farmers who grow for wholesale mostly sell summer crops, which won’t be ready to harvest until June or July.
Large-scale fruit and vegetable producers and dairy farmers in other states have had to dump or destroy produce and milk because they’ve been unable to get perishable items into the food supply chain in a timely manner. Parnell said farmers would much rather donate those items, but at times, that’s impossible.
“(The problem is) getting it from that mass-produced, large volume of product to a product that the consumer can actually handle,” Parnell said. “I could give you a tanker load of milk, drive up to your house with 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of milk, and you wouldn’t know what to do with it. But if you could get it in a gallon jug, you’d be proud to have it. So that’s the challenge there.”
Many Alabama farmers donate to food banks and other charitable groups to ensure minimal waste while helping those in need. Also, the American Farm Bureau Federation is working with Feeding America to match farmers who have perishable products with charitable organizations that are able to accept and distribute those items.
What can consumers do to help farmers and the supply chain?
Through all of the uncertainty, Alabama farmers and food processors are continuing work to ensure the supply chain remains strong. However, Parnell reminds shoppers that they also play an important role.
“The first thing I would say to the consumers is please do not hoard,” Parnell said “There’s no reason for that. There’s no reason for you to go buy a month’s worth of food. If you normally buy a week, buy a week’s worth of food when you when you go to the store. Cook for your family. That’s something special. Also, all those restaurants that we all have visited for years, they are struggling a little bit right now. So I would encourage you to go by those restaurants and buy some take out. Help those folks stay in business because you’re going to want to go back there later.”
The Alabama Farmers Federation’s role
Parnell said the Federation is working with state and local officials to help farmers impacted by the pandemic.
“We stay in constant communication with our legislators, U.S. Department of Agriculture, everybody that’s involved in the system… the governor, everybody involved in the system that we can — to help our farmers to express their needs, and the things that we need those individuals to do to help our farmers,” Parnell said.
Hope for the future
While times are tough, Parnell encouraged Alabamians to focus on the good that springs out of challenges.
“Those positives are our family, our friends, our neighbors, our faith — those things that we have all probably looked at a little differently of late than we were looking at when we were so busy a few months ago,” Parnell said. “Know that food is abundant and available and safe — the most affordable (food) of anywhere in the world is produced here. That is something we can all be proud of.”
Mary Wilson and Jeff Helms