Half of Joseph Fields’ business has evaporated as farmers markets in Charleston County closed in the pandemic.
“It slows things down for the farms,” the third generation, 70-year-old Johns Island farmer said. His farm, Joseph Fields Farms, is trying to pivot by selling direct to customers with delivery packages as they continue planting and harvesting.
The exact toll on South Carolina farmers will be unknown for months, but some fear the downturn in markets from the coronavirus pandemic will cause farms already on the edge to suffer or close.
“The last five years have been insane,” said Clemson University agribusiness professor Adam J. Kantrovich said. “Hurricanes, freezes, the trade war, and now this.”
He said the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and potentially the virus itself added more hurt that may not be relieved by aid packages.
Some federal aid is already expected for farmers, but state disaster aid was held up after a one-day legislative session this week ended without an agreement on funding state government or releasing $180 million in pandemic aid.
But amid the challenges, there could also be opportunity to strengthen and bolster locally grown foods, according to Kantrovich and South Carolina Farm Bureau media liaison Stephanie Sox.
On the farm
The latest analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation shows crop and livestock prices falling to levels that “threaten the livelihoods of many U.S. farmers and ranchers.”
The federation said the closing of schools and restaurants has led to a “downward spiral” in crop and livestock prices. This week, the group reported corn prices since January are down 15 percent, soybean prices are down 10 percent, and cotton is down nearly 30 percent. Beef, pork, and milk prices are all down around 30 percent.
Kantrovich said hard numbers on farm closures will not be available for months, but he already knows of dairy farms lost this year in South Carolina. Sox added many wholesalers and direct-to-consumer farms in the state have been “creative and resourceful on finding new markets.”
For example, Legare Farms in Johns Island has expanded its delivery service and expects to include delivery on its community-supported agriculture boxes at the end of the month.
“There is a market out there for home delivery,” owner Thomas Legare said. “As far as I know, Amazon isn’t selling fresh vegetables and meat yet.”
Labor and health
Two major issues that will determine the ultimate impact of the pandemic on farmers are access to labor and access to health care, according to Kantrovich.
In the last decade, many farms in the state have used temporary workers from foreign nations, known as H-2A workers. Federal authorization allowed South Carolina about 6,000 of these nonimmigrant workers in 2019, Kantrovich said. He said these workers are vital to keeping farms running in the state since local labor appears unwilling to do the work at the pay offered.
But foreign labor is vulnerable for two reasons, he said. First, the housing is typically dormitory style where disease can spread easily if picked up on a trip to town and, second, foreign countries that supply the laborers could close borders in the pandemic — leading to a worker shortage.
That leaves farmers wondering whether they can plant or harvest, and if they do, risking the health of their workforce, themselves, or their family.
“It is a significant concern,” Kantrovich said, adding it has been a concern nationwide among farmers. “(But) these farmers are willing to put themselves up to do what they need to do.”
South Carolina’s farmers are also similar to peers elsewhere in the nation: They live in rural areas with limited access to health care and, on average, are pushing 60-years-old. In other words, they are among the people most at risk from dying from COVID-19.
“They are much more susceptible to being harmed by the virus itself and in essence are risking death (by continuing to farm),” Kantrovich said.
At Legare Farms on Johns Island, they have had to close their “rolling market,” where they sell produce on two buses at stops around the Lowcountry, in the last week in an effort to keep customers and staff safe, Legare said, adding that he is hoping online, delivery sales will make up for the lost sales.
He said he hopes that as customers lose income, they will still be able to buy fresh produce and support farmers.
“(The pandemic is) going to have a long-term, hard effect on a lot of farmers,” Legare said. “Life as we know it is going to change, something as simple as not shaking hands with someone down to the way you buy your groceries.”
Farmer Fields said he still sees a future in farming as he nears retirement. He said he hopes the younger generation “will pick it up and run with it” after the pandemic passes.
“I hope in another month or so it will go away and business will pick up,” Fields said.
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