Surprise! What Did America Learn About Agriculture?

It is hard to believe that this Virus could actually be a blessing in disguise. Humor me if you will and let us review some new perceptions that the US public may learned about agriculture.

To begin with, for the first time in most consumers shopping experience they were concerned about empty shelves in grocery stores. Most Americans never seriously ever questioned where the food was processed or, for that matter, where or how it was grown. In the beginning of this cycle they were mostly concerned about a shortage of toilet paper! Once they hoarded a safe supply, they began to notice that some food items were in short supply. Staples such as milk, meats and produce were suddenly in tighter supply. How could this be in America?

Everyone has heard the term “supply chain.” Again, I doubt many ever gave it much notice. The Corona virus however was having its way and impacting this chain. Packing facilities were not exempt from this pest impacting employees. When key numbers fell to this virus there simply was no alternative but to shut down and conform to new health guidelines. Replacement employees were not to be found. Was it really possible that the farmers were telling the truth? There was a limited supply of trained and willing employees to step in to fill this gap in the supply chain. Domestic citizens were receiving supplemental income and unemployment benefits. They were not willing to replace this workforce. Employers across this land were in short supply of workers. High unemployment yet no workers?

The national news reported that we were not short of milk or pork. What we were short of was key employees in the food chain.  It only took a short time for people to realize how short this chain is between farm and their dinner plates. Farms were dumping milk and diverting animals to alternative landing spots.

For many this was the first time they had ever been out of a job. As weeks stretched into months

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

bank reserves dwindled. People were forced to look to new sources of food for their families. Not since the Carter administration had we seen long lines of cars awaiting not gas but food. Food banks reserves quickly evaporated. New programs had to be created to make diverse care packages for those in need.

New consumer preferences sprang up in our stores. People were now more concerned with value that was within their budget. Stores reduced the total number of items in favor of traditional staple food items.  Durable food items such as apples, onions and potatoes suddenly became a wiser food purchase.

What I hope will come out of this pause in our normal food chain is an awareness that our food supply is not a certainty. It has needs and we all need to address these needs in a realistic manner. Our human resources in our food chains do have limitations. Those who select to work in this chain are not easily replaced. Just because we have high unemployment it does not necessarily mean people will flow into all jobs.

In conclusion, agriculture is a major player in small business. People too often lump farms in a separate group. In truth, they are perhaps the most important small business in our society. They create the food for our tables. When we hear news clips about the hard times that this virus has impacted on small business, think of the American Farms in this group. We all are important links in this nation supply chains.

Lessons from the Past

 

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us in the short run are slow to accept changes. We do not like situations thrust upon us from outside forces. In retrospect, it is often these changes that have saved us. They have forced us to stop our daily grind and search outside of the box for new solutions to everyday needs. History will support me in that innovation is encouraged when there is an emergency. We are seeing this currently with how the Covid 19 Virus has inspired new discoveries in our health care delivery.

I fell that fruit production is also at one of these crossroads. If we are going to be able to supply a fresh product to our consumers we will have to do so at an affordable rate. We are price takers yes. My observation on this is a bit different. As production costs have risen so also have returns to the farm.  My observation of over 50 years is that too often the per unit return is always enough to cover net production costs but very little to go towards renewal or profit. This fact is why we continue to see the number of farms annually decline. Those that survive, in my opinion, have accepted the challenge of innovate or perish. Survival of the fittest. This occurs in natural selection as well as farming.

Labor has been and will always be a challenge for our industry. We have such short term needs for labor that it makes it impossible to expect local communities to supply the necessary labor. Migrant inflows of short-term labor, while increasingly expensive, has always been sourced. I cannot recall a single farm that failed to find some degree of labor during these times of need. So long as this availability persist, we will not quite reach the tipping point of seeking a new solution.

In fruit production I see three periods of short term labor intensive need.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Once the task is complete, we do not need the labor. Pruning, hand thinning and harvest are the three I have in mind. In my opinion we are currently at a crisis as to how to complete these tasks in a cost-efficient manner. To annually apply large numbers of increasingly expensive hand labor surely will reach a breaking point. My fear is, that as an industry, we have not reached a level where we accept this fact. The cotton industry, upon the close of the Civil Warm was saved by the cotton gin and the automation of planting and harvesting of cotton.

Our packing lines are in fact light years ahead of the cultural practices in our “modern” orchards. Many of the skills used in our packing lines need to be taken outside to our orchards. Use of cameras and infra light technology needs to be directed to our cultural needs. What is needed is the research push from the complacent production side of the fruit equation.

For the last two years the Horticultural Society has been in Albany planting the seed of such a change. We need to concentrate funds to direct technology to address the need for computer generated procedures on our trees. We believe that we may already have most of the technology to perform each of these before mentioned tasks. What has been missing is the catalyst from the growing industry that it Is ready to apply such technology. We have already been working with a high-tech company that is interested in such work. They are now only on the outside looking in. We need to encourage them to proceed and that upon completion we will be ready to apply this service.

Really what it always comes down to is that we seldom pursue the new technology until it is absolutely necessary. I again refer to what is happening in real time with the Covid 19 Virus. We must learn new skills to function in our orchards that will allow us to control our production costs. I think it is the correct time to encourage our efforts in a new, more progressive manner. Change can be a very positive driver under the correct leadership. We need to learn some lessons from our past.