Column: Impact of COVID-19 on local agriculture

At the forefront of discussions among local farmers is good hygiene and food safety practices, allowing employees who feel sick to stay home without fear of losing their job, and being aware of the added health risks of COVID-19 infection to older farmers. 


This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty and staff at UH Hilo.


Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

By Bruce Mathews, PhD
Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resource Management
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Like most other sectors of Hawai‘i’s economy there is much short- and long-term concern and anxiety regarding the impact of COVID-19 on local agriculture. During recent discussions with local farmers the following economic issues have come up with respect to the impact:

  1. Less demand for our niche export products during the crisis and near-term economic recovery.
  2. Greatly reduced demand for high end and specialty produce by local restaurants as they scale back operations.
  3. Limited sales outlets with the closure of farmer markets, although some grocery chains have indicated willingness to directly purchase fresh produce from the impacted farmers.
  4. Suspension of farm tours and other agri-tourism will impact the bottom line for some operations where this is a major contributor to their farm revenue stream.
  5. Potential capacity challenges in restocking critical inputs for farm operations.
  6. Timely availability of emergency fund relief as some farm businesses will surely have immediate financial struggles.
  7. Contingency planning in the event that there are workforce reductions due to quarantine measures and outright illness. How can farmers and their employees support each other in the absence of key personnel? Local agricultural leaders have made pleas for the community to come together regardless of their farming practices ideologies.

On the standard operating procedures front, most farmers have emphasized even more strict good hygiene and food safety practices such as more frequent hand washing, surface cleaning, disposable glove changes, etc., to ensure that work environments are as clean as possible. Some mentioned using even higher concentrations of bleach than normally recommended for routine sanitation to disinfect surfaces.

Sweet potato fields
A sweet potato field operated by Mitch Anderson. Farm owners Mitchell and Lili Anderson run a local eight-acre sweet potato farm north of Hilo. Photo by Chantal Vos.

Advising employees who don’t feel well to stay home if they are sick is paramount and that they won’t be fired. At one meeting I attended concerned farmers were clearly informed by a lawyer that they have the right to send home any employee exhibiting symptoms of a potentially contagious disease as this action does not violate employment laws. Farmers were encouraged to tell their employees that their health and that of their co-workers comes first. Only critical employees who are healthy should be on farms at this time.

Farmers are also practicing social distancing by making specialized delivery and pick up arrangements with buyers.

During the past few weeks both farmers and non-farmers have expressed long-standing concerns that Hawai‘i is far too dependent on imported food, energy, agricultural inputs, medicine, etc. and that hopefully the present crisis can move the needle in terms of policies to facilitate change for a more sustainable and resilient Hawai‘i.

On the social welfare side, concerns have been expressed that the average age of farmers in Hawai‘i is 60+ and nearly 70% of the farm workers are age 40+, therefore there are added health risks of infection for this population.

During the past few weeks both farmers and non-farmers have expressed long-standing concerns that Hawai‘i is far too dependent on imported food, energy, agricultural inputs, medicine, etc. and that hopefully the present crisis can move the needle in terms of policies to facilitate change for a more sustainable and resilient Hawai‘i.

During the past week several people in the teenage to late 20s age groups have approached me with a survivalist skills mindset regretting that they have not learned more to this point in their lives about growing their own food, having basic mechanical and construction skills, or knowing about the medicinal properties of plants. After the present crisis has subsided it is hoped that interest and appreciation will continue to grow in facilitating quality hands-on agricultural instruction, food safety, and supporting a more locally self-sufficient food system.

Local farmers and food processers will produce if they can make money and the current system does provide enough incentives to encourage growth. As the current medical and sanitary resource supply situation has clearly shown us, it is risky to be overly dependent on imports. The comparative advantage of global economy does us few favors in the midst of a global crisis.

 

Bruce Mathews’s area of expertise is in soil science and agronomy. He is best known for his research on nutrient cycling in tropical pastures and potentially environmentally sensitive release of phosphorus from pasture soils to surface waters.

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