Coronavirus crisis: Produce industry seeking relief as sales drop

Coronavirus

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — When the coronavirus crisis forced restaurants and schools to close, America’s fruit and vegetable growers lost nearly half of their business overnight.

The producers have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for immediate relief, but like their food, the request doesn’t have a long shelf life.

“There’s nothing you can equate this to, not in the suddenness of it,” said Robert Guenther, the senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association. “To target a sector of the industry so broad-based like it did the food service side is unprecedented.”

Guenther said the closures have had a domino effect along the produce supply chain. Restaurants and schools can’t pay distributors and distributors can’t pay growers. He estimates the result is a $5 billion loss to the industry.

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“With a product like ours, you’ve got to move it,” Guenther said. “Once it’s harvested, it needs to be in the store within a week.”

While the food service industry has had to re-channel its food supply, Guenther said grocery stores are starting to rethink what the demand for produce will be like for the next several months.

“While there was a big surge early on, it’s going to start trending down in the next several months,” he said.

It’s something industry experts, like Cheryl Druehl, an associate professor at George Mason University, are keeping a close eye on.

“I think there’s probably plenty, but the bigger concern is the financial stability of those smaller producers and even some of the large ones as well,” Druehl said.

That’s why the produce industry has presented a plan to the agriculture department, asking for a $5 billion fund to stabilize the market.

More than a hundred members of Congress have endorsed the short-term fix and urge USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to implement it.

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President Donald Trump has said help for the entire agriculture industry is on the way.

“Secretary Perdue will be using all of the tools at his disposal to develop a program, and very quickly, of at least $16 billion to provide relief for farmers, ranchers and producers impacted by the coronavirus,” President Trump said during Friday’s White House coronavirus briefing.

Guenther is hoping for an announcement this week as his industry inches closer to its expiration date.

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