American Farmers Devastated by Coronavirus: 'We're Just Planting Seeds of Faith'

In South Florida, millions of pounds of green beans have been plowed under.
Millions of pounds of green beans have been plowed under in South Florida. R.C. Hatton Farms

Already hurting by trade wars and bad weather, U.S. farmers buckle under coronavirus closures.

American farmers were already suffering from last year's weather disasters, but now comes something far worse: the coronavirus pandemic, which leaves them with badly needed food but fewer places to sell it.

With restaurants and hospitality sites shuttered, produce is rotting and business is down as much as 90% for smaller farmers who normally provide tomatoes, cabbage and green beans to eateries and grocers.

In upstate New York, where Norwich Meadows Farm would usually be selling specialty produce to famous Manhattan restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill, Zaid Kurdieh and his wife Haifa struggle to stay afloat after losing 60% of their customers to business closures.

"People are pretty much shell-shocked at the moment," Kurdieh told "At the moment, we don't know what we're going to do. We're still planting, but at a much-reduced level."

He and his wife are now concentrating on selling their perishable wares at New York City farmers markets, which are still open, but under rigid rules. People must stay six feet apart and are prohibited from touching produce and other foods for sale. Once packed outdoor venues now have drastically fewer customers.

Kurdieh battles his own fears by attempting to stay calm.

"We're hoping that this ends, and the market comes back," he said. "Obviously, we don't want to go out of business. I'm trying to stay optimistic. But we don't know."

Uncertainty is the new normal for U.S. farmers, who saw their crops ravaged by last year's torrential rains and blistering heat waves. Agricultural exports have been severely slashed because of China trade wars, with milk exports plummeting 50% in 2019.

Dairy farmers are also hit hard by coronavirus closures, with some cow owners being forced to dump thousands of gallons because their customers have dried up.

In south Florida, where farmers raise enough crops to feed nearly 180 million Americans, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, Paul Allen made the heart-rending decision to begin plowing under his cabbage and green bean fields.

Thus far, he says, his workers have pulverized 2 million pounds of beans and 6 million pounds of cabbage.

"You don't have a choice. Our crops are perishable. ... It's a decision that had to be made," he said, though he was loathe to do it.

Allen, who is president of R.C. Hatton Farms and chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said at farmland owned in Georgia by his company, planting has begun, though no one knows what the virus will continue to bring to the marketplace.

"Farmers are people of faith," he said. "We're just planting seeds of faith."

He estimates his Florida green bean and cabbage crops are split 50-50 between food service businesses including restaurants and grocery stores. The former market has reeled under closures to prevent the virus from spreading.

But even the supermarket end is low right now, he said, because of people stockpiling their refrigerators.

"People have panic-bought," he said. "So business is really slow right now." But Allen said he can't, and won't, lay off his workers. "When they run out of food and go back to the supermarket, we have to be able to feed them," he said of grocery customers.

In northern New York, Kurdieh worries he will have to start letting his staff go. "If this continues, were going to have to lay people off," he said. His farm opened 22 years ago and covers 230 acres. Besides selling at farmers markets, he and his staff have begun home deliveries in New York City, where packaged boxes of produce are being dropped door-to-door.

The vegetable boxes also include products from fellow farmers, as a way to help his devastated community.

To Allen, the best help would come in the form of grocery stores and the hospitality industry buying only American crops.

"We need 100% support from retail. Right now we need their support. We need for them not to buy from across the border," he said.

Farmers are also looking to federal government for aid in these dire times.

The recently enacted stimulus package includes more than $23 billion to ease economic losses to the farming industry, and gives the Agriculture Department broad discretion in divvying up the money to farmers.

"We're depending on the federal government to help us," Allen said. "All of south Florida farmers are hurting. It's difficult right now."

Yet another difficulty, in these times of state orders to stay indoors and work from home, is that farmers can't do that.

"We don't have the ability to stay in our homes, Allen said. "We don't have that option.There wouldn't be any food for people."