Fresh Asparagus

Farmers Ploughing Veggies Into the Dirt

You’ll find lots of speculation about the implications of the COVID-19 lockdown on nutrition. Much of it promotes familiar themes about bad dietary habits. Nutrition guilt trips should be banned in the lockdown, but apparently, they’re not. However, a more interesting and related subject is how the lockdown is totally disrupting the production and distribution of good, nourishing food. In fact, because of the lockdown, farmers are ploughing veggies into the dirt.

The problem stems from a radical re-ordering of how and where we eat.

Place – A Critical Element of Marketing

The classic framework for thinking about marketing is the Five Ps: Product, Place, Price, Promotion, and People. Food marketing follows this framework to deliver the food we all consume. But in the lockdown, one element of this mix has changed drastically – Place. This element of the marketing mix is all about distribution. Where and how do we buy and consume our food? With the lockdown, suddenly we’re consuming all of our food at home.

That means that restaurants and the food service industry instantly shrank to a tiny fraction of what they used to be. As a result, farmers have lost an important set of customers for fresh dairy products, fruits, veggies, and meat. The well-oiled machine of food distribution no longer works for current demands of the marketplace.

Meanwhile, grocery stores are struggling to keep up with demand while also keeping their employees safe.

A Dramatic Impact for Farmers

The New York Times describes the effect on farmers:

In Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil.

Food policy wonks might have been wrong to totally vilify the food service and restaurant industry. It turns out that they were feeding a whole lot of people fresh, wholesome, and nourishing food. Now, all of that good food, earmarked for this channel of distribution, has nowhere to go. Food waste is soaring. Farmers are ploughing veggies into the dirt. Customers for them have seemingly disappeared.

The Price of Cheap Food

We are learning a hard lesson. America has some of the cheapest food in the world. One of the reasons is that we have food distribution systems that are very efficient. Huge quantities of food move from farm to markets at a low cost – but with little room for error.

With so little room for error, the system breaks down when a huge change happens as suddenly as it did with the lockdown. Some will argue that this is just a blip. The old order will return soon.

However, we doubt it. We suspect that this disruption of the food supply will rumble around the world. Hunger and poor nutrition are likely to become much bigger problems. If you have doubts, the miles-long lines for food pantries should dispel them.

Click here for more from the Times, here for more from Quartz, and here for more from CNN International.

Fresh Asparagus, photograph © Wendy / flickr

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April 13, 2020

2 Responses to “Farmers Ploughing Veggies Into the Dirt”

  1. April 13, 2020 at 11:24 pm, Chester Draws said:

    One of the features of CV19 is how things that happen all the time are now news.

    We had many thousands die every year of lung infections. No-one much took any notice. Now we are counting every one.

    Farmers routinely plough crops back. The margins are so tight that often its better to do that than pick them. The NYT reporters probably know so little about farming that they think this is a new thing — and so set out to alarm us just that bit more.

    One feature of these stories is the total lack of numerical context. What amount is being ploughed back — 5% or 50%. What amount is normally not picked?

    I refuse to be alarmed by such news stories until I am given some numbers, not just someone somewhere being alarmed.

  2. April 14, 2020 at 3:47 am, Ted said:

    Thanks, Chester. Informed is good. Alarmed, not always so good. It all depends on the action you take.