Written by Julianne Foster
The San Diego agricultural economy is worth nearly $1.8 billion annually, but the essential industry has taken a heavy hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuts in sales to restaurants, grocery stores, and reduced farmer’s market opportunities have stripped many local San Diego farmers of their income and livelihood.
Although the federal data is incomplete, it shows an overall 20 percent decrease in the cost of fruit from January to April. Farmers have experienced their product going to waste as they struggle to find ways to sell or customers bold enough to come buy food from them amid the pandemic. Some have begun to close down permanently, even though their farm’s history dates back generations in the agricultural industry.
As farmers’ markets have been reopening since April, they have allowed growers to continue earning crucial income to support their farms, despite some of the dramatic drops in produce prices. Farmers’ markets have set strict rules to ensure social distancing and control of the crowds that go through their stands. Some markets have also transitioned into a drive-through shopping style. Farmers are desperate to follow all safety guidelines to create a safe space with hopes of attracting people to buy their products as the number of customers has recently declined despite this normally being the busiest time of year for farmers. Attending farmers’ markets shows huge support for local farmers and provides them with crucial funds to keep their farms open.
Despite the hard work and the slow return of sales, financial burdens and loss of income from the lockdown are still proving to be a heavy burden for essential local San Diegan farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Coronavirus Food Assistance Program has $16 billion in funds, which partially serves to assist businesses with a five percent or greater price decline or losses due to market disruptions from the pandemic. A total of $2.9 billion was distributed mostly to livestock, grain, and dairy producers as of June 15. Of those funds, $129 million went towards California farmers and ranchers. To receive such relief, farmers must produce certain crops deemed eligible by the USDA.
Some of San Diego County’s common crops eligible for relief funding include avocados, worth $121 million in 2018; lemons, worth $75 million; tomatoes, worth $61 million; and oranges, worth $43 million. Unfortunately, four of the five most valuable crops produced in the county aren’t eligible. San Diego thrives off of ornamental tree shrubs, worth $443 million; indoor flowering and foliage plants, worth $330 million; bedding and herbaceous plants, worth $260 million; cactuses and succulents, worth $104 million, as well as some uncommon fruits like grapes and kumquats. Farmers and nurserymen are struggling without support from the government because their produce isn’t deemed essential. They have taken action and made requests to the USDA to allow them to prove their economic importance and need for funds. A wide range of local farmers’ markets and growers have put in the requests and have shown their interest in receiving support. Their comments were to be submitted by June 22 for the USDA to review.
Cindy Luster is one in the long list of farmers preparing to prove her worth in the economy to receive relief payments. “I don’t know if I can stay in business,” said Luster. “The fruit is gone.” She is the owner of a 10-acre farm in Fallbrook called California Exotic Specialty Fruits.
She produces avocados, green mangoes, guava, and cherimoyas, a fruit found popular within the region’s Asian and South American communities. Her fruit has rotted on her farm despite her attempt to donate it as stores struggled to sell the fruit already in stock. The money normally earned from selling her stock goes towards paying for water and fertilizer, key elements to stewarding a thriving farm. Cherimoyas are not eligible for funding according to the USDA’s list, even though they are fetching half the price they did before the pandemic induced shutdown.
“We are known for producing very high-value crops because we deal with the expensive cost of land and expensive costs of water,” said San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Hannah Gbeh.
The San Diego County agriculture industry is worth nearly $2 billion and has the highest number of small farmers of any county in the United States. Some of the most valuable crops are flowers, nursery plants, and fruits, which will need a lot of support to convince the USDA of their importance beyond the common fruits eligible for funding, such as oranges, tomatoes, and avocados.