While the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on agriculture in Florida, forcing many farmers to scrap crops due to the shutdown of the hospitality industry, Santa Rosa County isn’t feeling it.
Cotton and peanuts are the primary crops in Northwest Florida and aren’t perishable the same way fruits and vegetables would be.
“There are no agronomic crops in Santa Rosa County being scrapped,” said John Doyle Atkins, who is with the UF/IFAS Extension Office. “Main activity at this time is field preparation for planting.”
Corn planting is expected to begin in the next couple of weeks, according to Atkins, and the planting of cotton and peanuts is set to begin later this month and wrap up in late May or early June.
Farmers have been deemed essential during the state-wide shutdown that began April 3 and is scheduled to end April 30, though that could be extended because of the fluid nature of the pandemic.
“This provides the producers of the state, including the producers in Santa Rosa County, which I consider some of the best in the state, to operate as usual while following social distancing guidelines,” Atkins said.
The stimulus bill passed by Congress earlier this month is providing $9.5 billion in disaster relief to farmers, but Santa Rosa County appears as if it’s going to avert disaster from an agricultural standpoint.
“No one I spoke to was concerned,” said Brandi Bates, the public information officer for the county. “Perhaps if we had something more perishable, it would be a concern.”
Bates added that there could be a shift to sending more products to grocers rather than restaurant supply companies during the pandemic.
Atkins said the county officials have kept a consistent line of communication open with farmers, and that has been a difference maker.
“Our county officials and county commissioners have and continue to provide full support to our producers as the need arises,” Atkins said. “They are in constant communication with agricultural groups throughout the year. I am sure as this virus continues to evolve, there will be further communication as needed.”
Because the farming industry is operating in business as usual mode, food banks in the area aren’t overwhelmed with scrapped crops – something that has been an issue for food banks in other regions of the state, particularly in Central and South Florida where they are at max capacity with donations.
Still, the food donations aren’t being turned away, and here locally, Feeding the Gulf Coast is working with farmers across the area to capture any excess produce.
“Feeding the Gulf Coast works with farmers through a variety of channels and at different levels to rescue excess produce to help fight hunger,” said Kyle Schoolar, the community engagement and advocacy manager at Feeding the Gulf Coast.
Feeding the Gulf Coast is part of Feeding America, which is the nation’s largest hunting fighting network.
The network fields a state association of food banks called Feeding Florida and it is working closely with farmers in the state to make sure excess produce finds its way into food banks.
The pandemic hasn’t been a roadblock to that initiative.
“We are continuing to work to capture the excess Florida-grown produce to help meet the increased need for food assistance,” Schoolar said.
Meanwhile, farmers in Santa Rosa County will continue to do their job in the wake of the pandemic.
“Our farmers are an optimistic group of individuals,” Atkins said. “They are the largest industry in the county when it comes to economic impact, excluding the military, and they do not take that responsibility lightly.”