FloridAgriculture eNews, August 2020
Contributing Author: Jessica Mendes Ryals
Sustainable Food Systems Agent, UF/IFAS Extension, Collier County
The nation is once again faced with two important questions; who produces our food? And how does it get to our plate?
Under the best circumstances, the majority of food produced in Florida leaves farms and enters a complicated, variable, interconnected supply chain—a web of transportation, processing, manufacturing, marketing, purchasing and consuming. A modern marvel that connects our urban and rural communities, gives us full grocery store shelves and bellies. The pathways and infrastructure are rarely linear or simple. National and global food supply chains are so efficient and well developed that “just in time” products show up at food outlets across the U.S. at good prices and with plenty to go around. Long supply chains have not only been able to provide us products out of season, they add to our resiliency when localized disasters wipe out crops in certain production areas.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t represent the best of circumstances. The normal demand from restaurants, schools, hotels, amusement parks and cruise ships came to a sharp halt in March shifting wholesale demand to retail locations. The longer and more complicated supply chains are, the more things can go wrong, especially when strained. For a brief time we witness scarcity in the face of abundance. Farmers continuing to grow but unable to get products to those in need.
In Florida, we know all too well the unique thing about crises; they push us to our limits, but they can illuminate opportunities and risks to improve how we move forward. That’s the term “resiliency” we’ve been hearing so much about lately. Most systems, whether it be food, transportation, healthcare or environment will be impacted by a crisis. The important question is, what does the “bounce back” look like? Will we use this opportunity to create stronger food systems to support agriculture and food access in our state and regions?
That’s where opportunity comes in. COVID showed the ripple effects and gaps in a complex distribution system but also called into view issues surrounding food security and the demand and benefits of localized food distribution. We were reminded that famers and harvesters are essential, still in the fields every day growing food in uncertain times.
Our producers reacted swiftly as they always do. After wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, new pest and disease outbreaks and gradually disappearing markets from global competition, Florida farmers find creative ways to keep producing.
Florida producers opened up their farms, packinghouses, online platforms, and social media pages to new customers looking for food. They created drive through pick-up locations, 6-foot spacing in their farmer market stalls and teamed up with one another to maximize sales. Some have pushed production into late spring and began sourcing products from northern Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and even tapping into local tropical fruit markets to mix into direct-to-consumer produce boxes. FDACS, UF/IFAS Extension, Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Feeding Florida and local regional branding initiatives compiled resources and connected consumer to producers.
Even in normal times, farmers of the 21st century understand capturing the attention of consumers is necessary for business. Midscale food distribution networks are beginning to pop-up across the country by offering and pooling farm products and value-added goods that can be marketed as “local”, “sustainable”, “pasture raised”, for example. These supply chains incorporate products with value-based attributes that consumers look for as people learn more about where their food comes from. Price and convenience will always be the main factor in consumer food purchases, but it’s no surprise to anyone in the agricultural industry that these once niche foods markets are expanding.
In the coming months and years our food systems will be tested. The survival of agricultural producers of all sizes are influenced by the cumulative effects of both market forces and government incentives and policies to support the infrastructure of local and U.S. food production. And when consumers buy products with the “Fresh From Florida” logo or local branding label, go to packinghouses, show up at farmers markets or get a CSA box they are helping to support agricultural production in the state of Florida for generations.
Many farmers are eager to regain their wholesale business. Some will continue or expand direct-to-market lines in the fall. Will the legacy of the current crisis result in increased public awareness of farms and related food businesses as essential? Or the importance of building domestic and regional food security? Will we work to develop regional markets if it makes financial sense for growers and their operations? These issues are complex but there has never been a better time find some answers to those questions.