How is the COVID-19 Crisis Affecting Food Supply Chains?
A Conversation with Judith McGeary, Executive Director at Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA)
April 22, 2020
The COVID - 19 crisis has created a strange situation for the agriculture economy. As the deadly coronavirus races through the country, hemorrhaging industries and killing thousands in its wake, food systems have become more important than ever to ensure health. But their operations are disrupted due to government restrictions to contain the virus’ impact. Social distancing norms and a crackdown on farmers markets in states like Virginia has affected the supply chain and operations of these markets.
NYC farmer's market
Independent farmers, who comprise the majority of vendors in such markets, have been disproportionately affected by these changes. The magnitude of those losses multiplies when you consider the statistics related to farms. According to the latest estimates by the USDA, approximately 51 percent of all farms have less than $10,000 in sales. Eighty percent record less than $100,000 in sales. Those figures put such farms firmly in the category of small and medium farms.
The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) has emerged as an important resource for small farms affected by the crisis. The Texas-headquartered organization is leading policy action, including an open letter to ensure that farmers markets remain open and independent farms are adequately compensated for the disruption to their operations during the crisis.
“COVID-19 has created new challenges, particularly the speed at which our farmers and food producers have had to change their operations in order to keep providing food for their local communities,” explains Judith McGeary, executive director at FARFA. As an example, she points to the loss of revenue for independent farms from restaurant closures and restrictions that depress demand at grocery stores. Those losses are further magnified by the added expense of implementing health measures and social distancing at their outfits, says McGeary.
While Congress has earmarked $23.5 billion to boost the agriculture economy during these trying times, there is much confusion about the beneficiaries of those funds. Programs like Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) also do not help either, says McGeary.
“The PPP is not enough because many small farmers have only a few employees and that is not their greatest expense,” she says, referring to the program’s focus on providing expenses for small business employee salaries.
There’s also the problem of large farms siphoning away a majority of funds from aid programs. According to McGeary, large companies have been the main beneficiaries of President Trump’s aid for farmers affected by the trade war with China. “...(The companies) are actually responsible for the farmers being in such perilous financial situations to begin with,” she says.
The FARFA website has a list of resources for farmers during the COVID-19 crisis. It is also a member of the National Family Farm Council (NFFC) to advocate policy action for family farms. While those actions have an immediate impact on the financial situation for independent farmers, they still do not solve the bigger problem of big farms hijacking the agriculture economy. To that extent, FARFA and NFFC are using the current crisis as a spur to reshape the agriculture economy as it exists today.
In its statement regarding Covid-19, NFFC has urged Congress to take steps to “re-localize food distribution.” “We need to rethink the basic concept that has dominated our agricultural and food policy and regulations for decades, namely that the most important goal is cheap food produced in the most “efficient” manner,” explains McGeary.
That efficiency is measured purely in monetary terms and disregards the inherent inequity, whether in environmental or social terms, present in agriculture today. “We need a food system where family farmers and ranchers can make a fair living raising food in an environmentally sustainable manner,” she explains.
On the ground, this translates to a “diversified, competitive, transparent marketplace” instead of one dominated by large corporations with complex supply chains that aggregate around a couple of key centers. “That (a marketplace dominated by small farmers) would naturally shorten and simplify many of the supply and distribution chain, as compared with the current consolidated system,” says McGeary.
Article by Rakesh Sharma, rakeshksharma.com