“Farmers are fighters and survivors,” noted Paul Allen, vice president and co-owner of Pahokee, FL-based R.C. Hatton Inc., responding to the uncertainty that faces the produce industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s difficult, but that’s what we do, no matter what it is, whether it’s weather or something we’ve never seen before like this. We’re survivors and we’re trying to feed our country.”
R.C. Hatton’s produce is distributed nationwide through its longstanding partnership with Hugh Branch Inc. of South Bay, FL. It’s 8,000-acre farm is located beside the “black gold” soil near Lake Okeechobee, and its crops are protected by the warmth of the lake and aided by the nutrient-rich soil perfect for growing green beans, corn, sugar cane, and cabbage.
The biggest hurdle facing the company in the wake of the coronavirus is that most foodservice establishments have closed their doors and some of the crops the farmers grow are more specific for foodservice than supermarkets.
“Two of the crops we grow are beans and cabbage, and they are about 50/50 to restaurants and supermarkets,” Allen said. “Whereas sweetcorn is more like an 85-15 split, with the majority going to supermarkets.”
Therefore, the challenge is finding outlets for the produce that was originally headed to restaurants. According to Allen, the supermarkets can’t handle the excess so that creates problems.
“The supermarkets are also in a phase where a lot of heavy buying was done for two weeks and now it’s sort of stopped,” Allen said. “I think everyone’s homes got full of food, so they need to consumer all of that before they go back. But even still, that doesn’t solve the foodservice part of the problem.”
Before the country started to face this challenge, the crops themselves were beautiful and Allen expected a strong season. But now, they may be forced to leave stuff in the ground.
“We don’t have an option. We’re growing perishable crops so you either harvest it and get it sold or you disc it in the ground,” Allen said.
While the U.S. is seeing a lot of discussions about drugs and medicines coming from other countries, Allen noted we don’t need to be depending on our crops from other countries, and Americans—and grocery stores—should be supporting local farmers.
“If we don’t realize now that food is a matter of national security, we never will,” Allen said.
Last week, he spent a day riding around with his son, looking at the four crops that weren’t being harvested and thinking about what should have been.
“I try to find stuff for people to do because we’re not harvesting, but you have to keep them on in case the restaurants come back on or whenever the supermarkets start moving produce again,” Allen said. “You’re spending extra money hoping things will come around.”
The company is also starting to plant corn and beans in Georgia in anticipation that things will return to normal sooner rather than later.
“It’s a dilemma because I am planning right now, and I may have to leave half my crops there too,” Allen said. “It starts in the middle of May so there’s a lot to consider.”
As he noted earlier, “farmers are people of faith, fighters and survivors” and though he knows things are tough, he is going to muddle through and stay strong and do what he can to keep the company on top.