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Alabama farmers shift food processing due to coronavirus; Food waste not a problem

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Now that Alabamians are eating at home more due to the coronavirus and the resulting stay-at-home orders, state farmers, food processors and packers are having to shift how they produce and process food.

Jimmy Parnell, president of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said Thursday farms are suffering economically right now and are having to adapt their business model because of a shift from how they sell food.

“Restaurants — they buy big packages,” Parnell said. “Most of us, for our family, want a family-sized package. So that has changed the demand significantly. When you’re selling a pound or two at a time versus 100 pounds at a time, it changes that flow of things.”

News of meat and poultry packers closing or slowing production is also affecting farmers, but Alabama’s supply chain is still strong and safe, Parnell said.

Thanks to increased demand for early fruits and vegetables, there hasn’t been a widespread issue of Alabama crops spoiling and going to waste, a news release from the federation said.  Alabama fruit and vegetable farmers who grow for wholesale mostly sell summer crops that won’t be ready to harvest until June or July.

Other states are having to purposefully plow over ripe fields or destroy tens of millions of pounds of food because demand has dropped so severely, the New York Times reported.

Parnell said waste is caused by farmers having to downgrade large scale productions to something more accessible to individual consumers, which is difficult for the market to adjust to in such a short span of time.

“(The problem is) getting it from that mass-produced, large volume of product to a product that the consumer can actually handle,” Parnell said. “I could give you a tanker load of milk, drive up to your house with 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of milk, and you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Parnell said many families are now going directly to farms to get food and that farmers markets are changing their layouts with greater distance between vendors and additional sanitizing stations.

“Some of our farmers that are marketing direct speak of families and groups that are coming to the farm in larger numbers maybe than they’ve seen in the past because kids are out of school. They can run out there and do that,” Parnell said. “(That’s a) good opportunity for them to buy some food that’s really good, really fresh, but also see where it’s grown and meet the farmers.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation is also working with Feeding America to match farmers who have perishable products with charitable organizations that are able to accept and distribute it.

Consumers can help farmers and the supply chain by not hoarding food and continuing to support local restaurants for take-out when possible, Parnell said.

The federation is also working with state and local officials on ways to help impacted farmers.

“We stay in constant communication with our legislators, U.S. Department of Agriculture, everybody that’s involved in the system… the governor, everybody involved in the system that we can — to help our farmers to express their needs, and the things that we need those individuals to do to help our farmers,” Parnell said.

Sweet Grown Alabama, a farm-to-table effort launched last year, is maintaining a list that details member farmers who have produce, meat and other products and how to buy their products while maintaining social distancing.

Parnell said that despite the struggles everyone is facing right now, Alabamians do not have to worry about the food supply.

“Know that food is abundant and available and safe — the most affordable (food) of anywhere in the world is produced here,” Parnell said. “That is something we can all be proud of.”

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