( Photo courtesy Tim York )

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are visible everywhere — from shuttered restaurants and empty streets to vacant parks and playgrounds and piles of empty Amazon boxes out for curbside recycling. And while all individuals and business are affected, the foodservice sector is hit especially hard, with more than 8 million foodservice workers out of a job. 

The ripple effects can be felt across the entire supply chain, including growers and manufactures, truckers, distributors and rural communities. 

One such example is Kennett Square, Pa., a small town heavily dependent on the mushroom market. 

Consisting of just 6,100 people, Kennett Square is in Chester County, just 30 miles from Philadelphia. The area produces more than 60% of the country’s fresh mushrooms, 80% of which go to foodservice.
I spoke with Sonya Beltran and her father Daniel Beltran of First Generation Farms, a family-owned mushroom operation started in 1994. Their business is 100% foodservice, so when the shutdown came, they were hit hard. 

Daniel explained that mushrooms have an 11-week cycle, and combined with his commitments on supplies like compost, he had 15 weeks of production underway, only a portion of which could be sold. 

For companies like Daniel’s, finding new retail customers and outlets can’t be accomplished in a short window of time. Sonya described how they gave away as much as they could. The rest of the crop was destroyed. 

When restaurants reopen and demand returns, it will take time to get employees, mushroom beds, and equipment back online. Meanwhile the losses continue.
Like most farmers I meet, Sonya and Daniel shrugged their shoulders and said we will get through this and are positive about the future. 

The story of Sonya, Daniel and Kennett Square is repeating itself in small cities across the U.S. In California, Watsonville is known as the strawberry capital of the Golden State. Mother’s Day is May 10 and is one of the biggest days in foodservice sales. Strawberry growers plan accordingly. 

With foodservice demand at 30%-40% of normal range, strawberry growers too will be looking for new outlets for their crops. 

Watsonville will likely feel the effect much like Kennett Square, and nearly everyone in that city will have their livelihood affected.

For many of us, when the shutdown hit, it was like a punch in the gut, knowing that individuals and families would be negatively affected almost overnight. I heard the frustration from farmers and shippers that had product to move and no outlet. I saw it in the fields of lettuces left unharvested. 

But I am among the lucky ones. I still have a job and I don’t have millions invested in crops, hoping and praying to find an outlet to move product.

Sonya and Daniel are representative of our nation’s growers who get up every morning feeling the responsibility to feed a nation, and we owe them our gratitude. And for those of us who can, getting creative by helping find new markets to move product is a great way to make a difference. 

We owe it to the farmers of America. It’s easy to say we are in this together — let’s put our words into action. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative.

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