By Andy Jackson and Donald Bryson
A few simple steps can aid North Carolina farmers:
- Keep open all farmers markets statewide, and local governments should waive municipal restrictions
- Match the temporarily unemployed workers with farmers to address an acute farm labor shortage in North Carolina
- Adopt the Small Dairy Sustainability Act
One thing for which we should all be thankful for during the coronavirus pandemic is that our agricultural production and distribution system has continued to perform well so far. However, the virus’ impact on some agricultural sectors could cause disruptions. These range from “food protectionism” (national governments hoarding food) to a potential drop in demand for American agricultural exports.
While some of the problems concerning North Carolina’s agricultural industry are beyond the scope of what the state government can (or should) do, there are actions the state can take to help farmers.
Support farmers markets
Gov. Roy Cooper was correct to put farmers markets in the same essential category as grocery stores in his March 27 stay-at-home order, either directly noting agricultural business or referencing the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s list of critical infrastructure sectors.
Most farmers markets across the state have remained open. However, local governments have the authority under current rules to impose stricter stay-at-home orders, which can include agriculture infrastructure. Durham closed its farmers market two weeks ago and, as coronavirus continues to spread over the next few weeks, other local governments may be tempted to follow Durham’s lead.
Most goods sold at farmers markets are locally produced and many farmers depend on the income they earn there. Given the open-air nature of many farmers markets, they are at least as safe an option for food shopping as grocery stores — if social distancing is maintained. As such, the General Assembly should prevent local governments from shutting down farmers markets while grocery stores are still open.
Gov. Cooper or the General Assembly should go a step further and urge counties and municipalities to waive restrictions temporarily on roadside, or “pop-up,” farm stands. Doing so will increase the supply of fresh dairy, fruits, vegetables, and meat.
Dealing with an anticipated farm labor shortage
Being able to sell their products does not help farmers if they cannot get their crops out of the field. A shortage of farm laborers has impacted North Carolina farmers for the past several years. One way they have addressed that need is through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Program. In 2019, the US Department of Labor approved 21,605 H-2A farm laborer certifications for North Carolina farmers, the fifth-highest number of any state.
In addition to that chronic labor shortage, North Carolina farmers must now deal with a new acute shock to the farm labor market. Two weeks ago, the US Embassy in Mexico (the largest source of temporary agricultural workers) halted interviews for H-2A visas as part of an attempt to reduce coronavirus transmission risks. While the federal government is trying to address the problem, harvesting in Florida has already been disrupted by the shortage.
North Carolina is also dealing with a huge number of the temporarily unemployed from coronavirus-related business closures. The economic disruption of those closures means that we will likely have elevated numbers of unemployed for months after all businesses are allowed to reopen.
That suggests at least a partial solution to both problems. The NC Department of Commerce’s Division of Employment Security (which handles unemployment insurance in North Carolina) should work with the NC Department of Agriculture to develop an online farm employment portal and promote it both to the unemployed and agricultural employers. A similar system is currently under consideration in New York and the French National Federation of Farmers’ Union has already set up a similar online portal as France deals with its own coronavirus-related farm labor shortage.
Farm work is physically demanding, and farmers often have a hard time keeping workers, even in times of high unemployment, so this would not completely solve farmers’ labor shortage problems. However, matching farmers with people looking for short-term work could help to significantly reduce the number of crops rotting in the field.
Adopt Small Dairy Sustainability Act
COVID-19 has exposed supply and sourcing problems in retail markets. The two-way strain can be seen through several reports of dairy farmers being told to dump their supply at the same time that North Carolina grocers are rationing gallons of milk.
While not a silver bullet, the Small Dairy Sustainability Act (NC House Bill 103), would provide a secondary supply and market for North Carolina dairy farmers through the sale of raw milk. If passed, North Carolina would join 30 other states that allow for the purchase of raw milk. The rules in other states vary from retail sales out of stores (such as in Pennsylvania and South Carolina) to direct farm-to-consumer sales (such as in Illinois and Texas).
Current state law only allows for citizens to consume raw milk if they own part or all of a dairy herd. While herd shares are a recent improvement to state law, we can go a step further to provide fresh food to North Carolina families.
Coronavirus is highlighting food uncertainty in North Carolina. Reliance on antiquated supply chains and state restrictions are preventing many North Carolinians from having access to fresh food. There is an abundant supply of food in the Tar Heel State, and its farmers are ready to meet the challenge. The priority should be to remove barriers between consumers and North Carolina farms.