Sacramento, California - Lost markets and lost off-farm income related to the COVID-19 pandemic have proven doubly difficult for many California farmers and ranchers, according to a survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation.
More than half of the farmers responding to the voluntary survey said they had lost customers or sales due to COVID-19, and nearly half said they or someone in their immediate family had lost off-farm income.
“Just as in the rest of society, the effects of the pandemic have reverberated throughout rural California,” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. “There’s no aspect of farming, ranching or agricultural business that has been spared.”
CFBF and the Farm Employers Labor Service, a Farm Bureau affiliate, asked farmers and ranchers to respond to an online survey form between April 7 and April 21. More than 500 participated.
Nearly 57% of respondents said they had lost customers or sales during the pandemic. Of those farmers, more than half cited stay-at-home orders that had closed restaurants, company cafeterias and other customers’ businesses. Farmers also pointed to reasons for lost sales including declines in exports, transportation difficulties, reduced packinghouse capacity, farmers market closures and customer concerns about the safety of direct sales.
Forty-two percent of responding farmers said they or a family member had lost off-farm income.
“Most farm and ranch households count on off-farm income to supplement what they earn from agriculture,” Johansson said, “and have seen those jobs reduced at the same time as prices farmers and ranchers earn for many crops and commodities have fallen.”
Of survey respondents who reported a drop in off-farm income, nearly 60% said jobs had become unavailable due to stay-at-home orders. Farmers said they or family members also saw off-farm income decline due to the need to care for children due to school and child-care closures.
About three-quarters of the responding farmers said they had been able to maintain operations so far, and had been able to avoid furloughing or laying off employees.
About one-third of respondents reported being unable to undertake routine planting, cultivation or crop-care activities due to lack of personal protective equipment.
“Most frequently, farmers mentioned difficulty in being able to acquire respiratory protection, such as N95 respirators,” said Bryan Little, CFBF director of employment policy and FELS chief operating officer. “To a lesser degree, farmers said they had not been able to buy gloves, protective outerwear or eye protection required for certain on-farm operations.”
Farmers responding to the survey who reported reducing operations or staff were asked to provide one or more reasons for doing so. More than 70% pointed to reduced business revenue or customer orders. Another one-quarter of those farmers cited unavailability of employees due to quarantine or shelter-at-home protocols.
Only 20% of participating farmers reported employees unable to work due to the stay-at-home orders. Among farmers who said one or more of their employees was unable to work, the top reason was because the employees were considered in a high-risk group for the novel coronavirus.
Employee absences related directly to the pandemic had interfered with typical, seasonal activities for 16% of the farmers responding to the survey. Forgone activities included harvest, pruning, weed control, farm maintenance and shipment of orders.
Reflecting chronic difficulty in hiring farm employees, only 21% of participating farmers whose workforce had decreased due to the pandemic said they had been able to recruit replacement employees—relying mainly on word of mouth in looking for additional help.
More than half of farmers responding to the survey said they had applied or would apply for COVID-19 aid through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration or tax credits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
“Farmers and ranchers are doing all they can to maintain essential activities and provide plentiful, safe food,” Johansson said, “but there’s no question the pandemic has put a strain on rural California. At local, state and federal levels, Farm Bureau will advocate for policies that ease that strain while assuring the health and safety of farmers, ranchers, their employees, families and customers.”
To review the survey results, visit www.cfbf.com/impactsurvey.