In rural Pennsylvania and beyond, in communities where farming is as much culture as it is business, the day-to-day looks largely unchanged on the surface. The coronavirus has affected fewer people in sparsely populated towns, compared with shuttered cities where cases multiply each day.
But the seeming calm has belied nagging thoughts. Farmers look at their fields and wonder if vendors will return in time to buy at harvest, or whether the crops will be left to rot.
Or, as the weather warms and the peak harvest cycle approaches, how they will manage with a likely shortage in seasonal laborers as immigrant visa services have been indefinitely suspended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“I can’t see where we’re going with this and how long this is going to be," said Joel Rotz, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture have strongly encouraged farms and food-processing facilities to stay open, calling them critical sources for a robust food supply as the coronavirus continues to spread and people flock to grocery stores to stock up on goods.
“The demand has not really changed," Wolf said on a recent coronavirus telephone briefing, adding that he talks with Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding every day. “It’s the channel through which the food has traveled that is really affecting the situation right now. Restaurants are closed, food courts are closed. ... It’s put a real load of pressure on food processing."
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has been less vocal about the role of farmers, though he has deemed farms and farmers markets to be essential services.
Wolf implored the federal government last week to immediately provide details about the $9.5 billion in assistance American farmers could receive as part of the $2 trillion federal relief bill that President Donald Trump signed in late March.
“Our recovery and our national security are impossible without the certainty of a safe, secure, and available food supply,” the Wolf administration wrote in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
So far, the USDA has said the $9.5 billion would allow the agency to buy farmers’ goods and distribute them to food banks across the country, helping to alleviate growing food insecurity amid the pandemic while also possibly reducing financial strain on food producers.
Despite farmers’ difficulties, “things are getting done," said Rick Carr, farm director for the Rodale Institute, a Berks County organic farming nonprofit with five locations in Pennsylvania. “I don’t think they’re afraid of the pandemic. They’re more afraid of their livelihood and putting food on the table.”
Even if it’s unclear where the food from her farm will end up, Lynn Trizna, a Rodale farm manager, knows she has to keep growing crops.
“Everyone feels strongly that this is a time to produce as much as we can," she said. “... This is just another challenge that’s out of our control."
Trizna’s 16-acre farm, owned by Rodale in Easton, has lost business from one of its largest customers, the cafeteria at St. Luke’s Anderson Campus hospital.
“They no longer have visitors. They no longer have volunteers during the pandemic," said Trizna, 32. "So the volume for their kitchens has gone way down.”
The kitchen uses what produce it can, she said. For now, she’s trying to figure out how to adapt.
“In July and August, when we have a lot of our crops, the kitchens might be able to take more,” she said. "We just don’t know. At this point, we haven’t made any drastic changes to our production. We don’t want to make a change now in April on a gut feeling based on how things are going to look in June.”
The logistical quandary has given Trizna just one option: “This is a time to produce as much food as possible and then figure out what to do with it."
Should the fallout of the pandemic stretch into the summer when warm-season crops are ready for harvest and farms typically need extra workers, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is worried about a shortage of laborers, reflecting national concern.
In July, the United States typically sees a spike in seasonal laborers, mostly from Latin America, and the associated H-2A visas that give migrant workers permission to work temporary farm jobs. Most states have fewer temporary workers in March and April, a slower-moving period for farms.
The demand for farm labor has risen significantly in recent years, with the shortage compounded by fewer younger people wanting to work in agriculture, among other factors.
In fiscal year 2005, the United States certified 48,336 jobs that could accept H-2A workers, according to federal data.
By 2018, data showed that figure had quintupled to 242,762 jobs, which ran an average of about 5½ months. Of that, the United States issued 196,409 H-2A visas. Historically, the bulk of H-2A certified jobs have been in Florida, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, Washington, and California.
The coronavirus pandemic could cut the number of H-2A workers by up to 60,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington. Put in context, the U.S. Department of State granted more than 204,801 H-2A visas in fiscal year 2019, with each job lasting an average of six months. The workforce fulfilled around 79% of the labor demand that year, according to federal data.
Recently, the USDA and the U.S. Department of Labor suggested it could transfer H-2A workers already in the country to work on other farms to compensate for a lack of seasonal workers and to mitigate losses to states that are agricultural powerhouses. The EPI estimated California, where agriculture is the leading industry, could have 1.6 million unfilled jobs by summer.
Far less data had been collected on the magnitude of projected losses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, though economic analysts forecasted Pennsylvania could lose a little more than 260,109 jobs across a variety of industries by summer; 142,233 could be lost in New Jersey.
“Certainly those farmers that are dependent on migrant labor, like the fruit and vegetable industry, we are really concerned about the borders being shut down and how we’re going to obtain a legal workforce to help harvest these crops on the farm," said Rotz, of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. “Will these unemployed Americans be willing to go out there and do that work? That is a serious challenge."
The pandemic, farmers and agriculture advocates said, has cast greater attention on the food production and processing industry and the financial struggles that preceded the pandemic but have since amplified because of it.
“There’s more focus on food than ever before," Rotz said. “Food is something we take for granted every day.”