By County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay
There are so many issues confronting our agricultural community right now as we battle a global pandemic. Never in recent history has the need for domestic domination of the nation’s food source been more apparent than it is right now. In our current crisis, knowing that our food sources are safe, reliable and free from pathogens is critical to national security and sustaining life. Simply put, we must know where our food is grown, harvested, packaged and how it is transported. We must know that these sources are not leading to the spread of pandemics like COVID-19. Arguments insinuating agricultural workers should not be deemed essential workers are irresponsible.
There are three issues affecting the American farmer, but I’d like to focus on Florida farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA):
- The months of April and May are the peak of the EAA’s harvest season. This area of Florida is the primary source of all freshly grown produce for nearly the entire eastern half of the United States. While the American consumer is overwhelmingly dependent on this food source, fringe activists are claiming that these farmworkers should not be classified as critical, essential employees nor a critical industry to national security, as has been authorized by the United States Department of Homeland Security. About 90 percent of America is currently under some sort of directive to stay at home. They are also being advised to maintain a healthy diet to boost immune systems as the best way to avoid complications from the COVID-19 virus. Access to healthy foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, is a staple component to adhering to these guidelines. Our farmers and ranchers must be able to maintain full operations in order to meet the American family demand.
- At the same time most of our country is under direction to stay at home, the industries that buy produce in bulk — restaurants, hotels, cruise lines, theme parks and large venue halls — have been nearly entirely shuttered. The orders these industries place for fresh produce have been cancelled, leaving our farmers holding the bulk of their product, the entirety of the financial investment behind their harvest and the responsibility of supporting their workforce. Like many other small, medium and large businesses across the country, our local farmers have been faced with millions in losses. Food banks are currently saturated with donated produce, school meal programs have been supplied and without any direct payment relief in sight from state and federal programs, farmers are now faced with plowing their produce back into the ground. Without these bulk purchases, we should expect to see many of our nation’s farmers suffer from even more bankruptcies and closures. Between natural disasters, trade wars and an unsettled loophole on Mexican market flooding in the recently passed USMCA (the Trump administration’s trade pact with Mexico and Canada) coupled with a global pandemic, our farmers are getting crushed.
- And, to add insult to injury, the levels in Lake Okeechobee are below 12 feet and dropping quickly with no rain relief in the near future as we approach the peak of dry season at the same time we approach the peak of harvest season. Those of us living in South Florida should not only be concerned about the impact low lake levels have on the agricultural community and our nation’s food supply, but as we find ourselves ordered to remain in our homes, we are using more and more of our local water resources. If the day comes where we need to tap into the backup water supply of Lake Okeechobee and find the water isn’t there, the agricultural community will be just one of our worries. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reevaluates the Lake Okeechobee operations manual, it is imperative that they incorporate the experiences we are dealing with during this unprecedented pandemic that is simultaneously occurring during our local dry season and harvest season.
Americans and citizens across the globe are staring a crisis squarely between the eyes right now. Stress levels are likely higher than they’ve ever been. Families are facing unemployment, crushing financial blows, figuring out how to balance homeschooling children and working from home, isolation, loss of the freedom of movement and, likely, a claustrophobic feeling both physically and mentally. Our farmers are no different than the rest of us, yet they will wake up before the sun tomorrow, head out to the fields, and harvest what they can so your family and my family can eat. They will also face crushing losses and fears about how to support their families and their workers, but given their humility, they will likely suffer in solitude. Because the burden they’ve decided to carry on their shoulder is something no one can live without — food. They are the definition of essential. We owe them our gratitude. And, right now, we owe them an extra prayer.
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay,
District 6, Palm Beach County
Editor’s note: McKinlay is also the chair of the National Association of Counties’ Committee on Agriculture & Rural Affairs.