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Vegetable growers in the US rally to conquer COVID-19-induced challenges

The vegetable industry in 2020 is living through extraordinary times. The State of the Vegetable Industry survey that Growing Produce conducted this year gave invaluable insight into what you are experiencing when it comes to production issues, labor, and specialized areas like protected agriculture and technology.

Since the coronavirus pandemic upended business as usual, Growing Produce assembled a group of industry experts to discuss what they’re seeing and where they think we’re heading.

“When the government says you can’t have any customers, guess who becomes your customer? The government,” Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council (NPC) says. It’s only a short-term solution, he says.

What are produce lobbyists asking for? For the government to purchase backlogged produce and for direct payments, Quarles says. He not only heads up the National Potato Council; he also serves on a unified board made up of several fruit and vegetable crop groups.

One issue they’re trying to address is how the government determines which growers benefit and by how much. It needs data upon which to make policy decisions. If it uses the wrong data, it can leave some growers unprotected.

When the government issued the first rescue package, it used data from the grocery channel.

“We had no idea they were going to use a pricing framework as a trigger for if you would be included in the program or not. [Grocery pricing applies to] only 40% of our business,” Quarles says. “60% of our business cratered and there was no visibility.”

“The thought, early on in the crisis, that you could go to the grocery store and not see food there? I think that was really shocking to folks,” Quarles says.

That gives the industry a strong backing to spur Congress to act on its behalf and help it get past 2020 and into a strong future.

The potato industry has been especially hard hit, says Quarles. Since 60% of the potato industry was supplying food service, when the bottom fell out, it created a tremendous backlog.

“We have over a billion pounds of potato and potato products that are clogged up in the pipeline,” Quarles says.

To put that in perspective, Quarles and his team did the math. A billion pounds will fill up the U.S. Capital building 14 times. The impact of so much crop in the system when potato growers were at the beginning of a new season is huge.

For one, processors who contract with growers simply don’t need as much from them in 2020. In some cases, they don’t need any crop. “You’re potentially looking at impacts on growers that can echo out 18 months,” Quarles says.

Source: Read the full report in Growing Produce

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