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While farmers in other parts of Florida are anticipating millions of dollars in crop losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, farmers in the Florida Panhandle say they're hoping to make it out of the current crisis comparatively unscathed.
That's because the vast majority of crops in Northwest Florida are "row crops" such as peanuts, cotton, corn, soybean and wheat — mostly non-perishable items that aren't as severely affected by the supply chain crisis as other crops, like produce, milk and beef.
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“It’s kind of a paradigm,” said Nick Simmons, the county extension director for Escambia County. “Parts of the industry are doing really well, blowing up and hiring even temporary workers. Then there are people who are wondering just how much longer they can hold on.”
Business for plant nursery farmers, for instance, is booming, since people quarantined at home are turning to landscaping and other home improvement projects to occupy themselves while under stay-at-home orders.
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In southern and central Florida, which leads the U.S. in harvesting tomatoes, green beans, cabbage and peppers this time of year, thousands of acres of produce are being left to rot since there's no one to sell to and charities have reached their capacities for how much perishable food they can accept.
Northwest Florida's two main agricultural outputs, cotton and peanuts, are both feeling the effects of the pandemic, but in different ways.
"The cotton market has gone to hell, but the peanut market has come up a little bit," said Rodney Helton, who farms both products in northern Escambia County. "The demand for peanut butter has grown, since people are hoarding peanut butter like they were hoarding toilet paper.
"But cotton, which is tied to the stock market, is cheap right now, because it competes with your nylons and polyesters, which are all made from petroleum. So when petroleum is cheap, cotton's going to be cheap. Plus, people aren't out buying clothes and shopping right now."
Don Shurley, a professor emeritus of cotton economics at the University of Georgia, wrote in a memo to farmers that over the past four to six weeks, cotton prices have fallen 30% due directly to coronavirus impacts.
And cotton prices are expected to continue reaching even more historic lows.
"The destruction of markets and prices due to the impacts of the coronavirus are unprecedented," Shurley wrote. "In 40 years as an economist and analyst — 30 years of that in cotton, I’ve not seen anything like this."
Mickey Diamond, a cotton and peanut farmer in Jay, said he’s worried about the carryover effect that the cotton prices are going to have on his bottom line. Every day that he can’t sell cotton because of the price, there's more cotton that he'll have to sell down the line, if he can at all.
But peanuts may just be the saving grace for local farmers who are hoping to balance out the tanking cotton prices.
“Peanuts have a tendency to follow the economy,” Diamond said. “For instance, if the economy drops, people will buy more peanut butter. If the economy goes up, they buy more ham sandwiches instead of peanut butter and jelly. … So right now, with the economy dropping a little bit because of this, peanut butter is really flying off the shelves.”
Diamond and Helton are both anticipating planting their peanut crop by May 1, and will harvest it around August.
But while the Panhandle agricultural scene might not be as negatively affected as other parts of the state and country, the ripple effect isn’t sparing anyone from coronavirus' catastrophic impacts on the economy.
Diamond said even though peanuts are doing well right now, cotton’s dismal prices are going to hurt him in the future.
“It don’t matter what you do, you got affected somehow,” Diamond said. “Whenever this stops, it’s going to take a long time for our price to recover, so it’s not just going to get better overnight.”
Simmons, with the extension office, said he hopes a silver lining in all of the current chaos is that people both inside and outside the agriculture world, will see agriculture in a different light.
“We’re seeing people who are not traditionally agriculture people kind of become a little more involved with it, whether that’s buying chickens or putting a garden in the backyard,” Simmons said. “We’re seeing this shift of people being more resilient and looking at different ways to provide for their families.”
Simmons said a lot of farmers he works with at the extension office are learning to embrace new forms of technology that they had never used before, like teleconferencing, which he hopes will carry over into the future when the coronavirus impact is mitigated.
“I really think it’s going to change the way that we in agriculture do business in the future,” he said. “I think technology will grow even more in the coming years, and producers that may have been reluctant to use some of this technology in the past might be starting to embrace it now.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.