Feeding the World Amid a Pandemic

Impacts on UC Research

One of California agriculture’s most important partners in production is the University of California Cooperative Extension. With financial support from university, industry and private funding, advisors and researchers from the UC system have historically sought to provide assistance with crop diseases and pests, improving crop health and development of new varieties.

Jeff Dahlberg, director of UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Education Center in Parlier, said work in those areas would continue where possible. However, the centers where the research take place are working with a skeleton work force to maintain research plots and take care of work that cannot be done from home.

Some work is not worth the risks involved, Dahlberg said, and some research may be delayed for a time. Planting annual crops at Kearney may not happen this year. Farm advisors in counties throughout California, meanwhile, are doing as much of their work from home as possible, while maintaining research projects and assisting growers.

Market Stability

Richard Waycott, president and CEO of Almond Board of California, said that while growers continue to care for their orchards, there may questions in coming months about distribution. There may be changes in food distribution, but demand for nutritious products will continue, he said.

Mark Jansen, president of Blue Diamond Growers, said some of the cooperative’s largest customers increased orders for almond products while major grocery retailers have committed to stay open to serve customers and communities.

“With the support of our dedicated team members, we plan to remain fully operational throughout this health crisis to fulfill our role as a key food supplier,” Jansen said.

Rob Nash, director of Government Relations for American Pistachio Growers, told growers that APG expects the U.S. pistachio industry to emerge as strong and vibrant as ever. Growers are being asked to inform the APG government relations team about any labor, supply or trade challenges with their pistachio operations due to the COVID 19 pandemic.  That information will help them establish industry priorities and messages when engaging with the government on assistance, regulation, legislation and mitigation.

Shifting Demand

The demand and distribution side of the food supply change has shifted as food service outlets are shuttered and consumers instead are spending their food dollars at home, according to Kevin Hammill, chief commercial officer of Marrone Bio Innovations. The ripple effects are now reaching the grower level, he noted.

Demand for specialty crops grown for restaurants or food service  has dropped while sales of other commodities are soaring. According to the market research firm IRI, frozen fruit and vegetables and shelf-stable fruit sales more than doubled, and shelf-stable vegetable sales increased a whopping 200 percent.

This sudden and dramatic shift in how food is being consumed will, no doubt, continue to impact the food supply chain, he said. Distributors and operators are quickly adapting to new norms while farmers try to salvage perishable crops that no longer have buyers.

The vast American agriculture system is, perhaps, the most diversified in the world, Hammill concluded. While the conditions of each region and crop vary, the needs remain the same: farmers require the right tools and people to get the job done. Despite the chaos of this COVID-19 crisis, farmers remain focused on the task at hand: protecting and nurturing developing crops to ensure there is a safe and reliable food supply for all.

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Cecilia Parsons has spent the past 30 years covering agriculture in California for a variety of newspapers, magazines and organizations. During that time she has been fortunate to witness some of the important events that have shaped this diverse industry and worked hard to examine and explain these events for readers.
When Cecilia first moved to the San Joaquin Valley in 1976, her first journalism job was at a small daily newspaper where she covered “farm news.” From there she branched out to writing for a dairy magazine and a regional weekly agriculture publication.
Cecilia is part of a farming family from the rural community of Ducor where she also raises purebred sheep and is attempting to master versatility ranch horse riding.