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Food Rotting in the Fields But Shortages in the Stores

Published: April 26, 2020
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Food banks are running out of food but farmers are letting it rot in the fields. What's going on.

Politico reports Tens of millions of pounds of American-grown produce is rotting in fields as food banks across the country scramble to meet a massive surge in demand.

Images of farmers destroying tomatoes, piling up squash, burying onions and dumping milk shocked many Americans who remain fearful of supply shortages. At the same time, people who recently lost their jobs lined up for miles outside some food banks, raising questions about why there has been no coordinated response at the federal level to get the surplus of perishable food to more people in need, even as commodity groups, state leaders and lawmakers repeatedly urged the Agriculture Department to step in.

Tom Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, put it this way: “It’s not a lack of food, it’s that the food is in one place and the demand is somewhere else and they haven’t been able to connect the dots. You’ve got to galvanize people.

Coronavirus Forces Farmers to Destroy Their Crops

The Wall Street Journal reports Coronavirus Forces Farmers to Destroy Their Crops

As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains, American farmers are dumping milk, throwing out eggs and plowing under healthy crops. Produce suppliers are especially vulnerable to surpluses because fruits and vegetables are perishable and can’t be stored.

Lettuce producer Mark Borba, in Huron, Calif., said he has had to plow under 230 of 680 acres of recently harvested lettuce since the pandemic swept the country a month ago. He said demand fell off so sharply from restaurants, schools and other large customers that his crews had to unpack 9,000 cartons of lettuce from a warehouse where they had awaited shipment and dump them back in the fields to be plowed under.

“The demand [from the large customers] just went to zero,” said Mr. Borba, who manages 10,000 acres under his Borba Farms. “And not only did we lose restaurants and schools, but people were going to the grocery store buying nonperishable stuff to put in the pantry. They were not buying leafy greens.”

Pork and Beef Shortages 

On April 12 Reuters reported Smithfield shutting U.S. pork plant indefinitely, warns of meat shortages during pandemic.

 

Since then, things have gotten much worse. 

On April 23, the Wall Street Journal reported Grocers Hunt for Meat as Coronavirus Hobbles Beef and Pork Plants.

Covid-19 outbreaks among employees have closed about a dozen U.S. meatpacking facilities this month, including three Tyson Foods Inc. plants this week. Other plants have slowed production as workers stay home for various reasons.

Tyson, the biggest U.S. meat company by sales, on Thursday temporarily closed a Washington state beef plant, after closing two Midwestern pork plants on Wednesday that produce millions of pounds of meat, together slaughtering nearly 35,000 hogs daily. Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. have closed plants over the past month, leading to significant declines in overall U.S. meat production.

Meat companies are trucking poultry and livestock to be processed at other plants, and bringing in welders to install shields between processing-line work stations. On farms, some pigs now are being euthanized because slaughterhouses have closed, farmers said.

Meat companies are trucking poultry and livestock to be processed at other plants, and bringing in welders to install shields between processing-line work stations.

Six-Point Synopsis of What Going On

  1. The USDA normally buys food that can be stored for a long time. It cannot easily deal with Fresh fruits and vegetables and things that do not store easily.
  2. Grocery stores stores stock 1-2 pound packages. of cheese. A pizzeria might buy 50-pound containers. It is expensive to retool plants to package things differently for what is supposed to be a temporary disruption. 
  3. People eat vegetables more often when eating out than they do at home. There is a collapse in demand for many items. 
  4. With diminishing need for raw milk to produce cheese farmers are dumping it. The same is in play for many fruits and vegetables. Strawberries are rotting in the fields and farmers are plowing under beans.
  5. At the meat packing plants, the workers work very closely to each other. Covid-19 is spreading rampantly. Plants had to be closed.
  6. Store shortages are mainly meats, dried foods and canned foods. Price of beef has soared in the past week due to closure of processing plants. At times I have had a hard time finding canned tomato sauce. I see holes where boxes of au gratin potatoes should be.  People hoard items that store well.
 

Demand Shift and Supply Chains

It is easy to blame the USDA or Trump but the problem is quite a bit more complicated due to Covid-related demand shifts and supply chains.

One of my readers, Jdog1, summed up the above 6 points succinctly: 

"Farmers who sell to the restaurant industry do not have a direct supply line to the grocery stores, so their perishable goods go bad before they can find new customers and mechanisms to get their goods to market."

What to Do?

People want government to do something about this. But what? 

I see no sensible action and government never solves anything, anyway.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

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