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Coronavirus, Seasonal Workers and Food Supply Shortage

Esendugue Greg Fonsah1 and Justin Shealey2

 1Professor and REI Coordinator, Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics

University of Georgia, Tifton, GA 31793

And

2County Extension Coordinator, Echols County, University of Georgia

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Despite the dynamism of the Georgia fruits, vegetable and tree nuts industry, this over $2 billion industry has embraced several difficult times in the past almost two decades.  Let us start with the Montreal Protocol that recommended a complete eradication of Methyl Bromide because of its toxicity to the ozone layer.  Then came the Salmonella Saint Paul that affected 43 states and 1,401 people infested nationwide.  Then the Thrips and Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV) showed up; then the Tomato Yellow Leave Curl Virus (TYLCV), then the 2017 frost that devastated over 50% of Georgia blueberries; then the 2018 Hurricane Michael devastated both specialty and row crops in South Georgia, including pecans.  Still in 2018 and 2019, it was the tariff war between the U.S. and China and trade war between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, which ended up abolishing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was created in 1994 and created the new United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA) on September 30, 2018.  Today, it is the Coronavirus also known as COVID-19.  The difference between Covid-19 and the other reported incidences is that, while the others affected the specialty crop industry directly, the COVID-19 will indirectly affect the entire industry.  Why? Because the COVID-19 is an airborne communicable disease and highly contagious virus that affects and causes death to human beings.  Ever since COVID-19  became a pandemic, most countries including the United States have shut down their borders, Embassies and imposed travel restrictions. 

Agriculture is the backbone of the state of Georgia and its economy with a farm gate value of about $14 billion.  Most fruits (blueberries, strawberries, peaches, Muscadine grapes, satsuma citrus), and vegetables (pepper, squash, eggplant, cucumber, watermelon, sweet corn, greens, onions, carrots) etc., in Georgia are all handpicked, thus the need for seasonal, migrant and/or immigrant labor.  These fruits and vegetables are currently getting mature in the fields in Georgia, the Southeast regions and other parts of the country.  In other words, they are getting ready for harvesting and marketing.  The announcement that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico will stop interviews of seasonal workers has sent another wave of panic to the existing COVID-19 pandemic fear.  Common sense tells us that if this happens, chances are that there will be huge labor shortages, not only for Georgians, the Southeast region, but the entire country, especially if the decision is not reversed or relaxed in a timely manner. 

In article 9112-FP from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 19CFR Chapter 1 entitled “Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service between the United States and Mexico” that went into effect at 11:59 p.m. (EDT) on March 20, 2020, clearly stated that this restriction will be observed until 11:59 p.m. EDT on April 20, 2020.

A shortage of migrant and/or immigrant seasonal workers caused by coronavirus will result into the following:

1.       Huge field crop loss for some handpicked fruits and vegetables as some growers may not have enough seasonal or permanent labor force to harvest their crops.

2.       Despite the anticipated seasonal and permanent worker shortages, the recommended social distancing for safety reasons will also delay the harvesting process and increase the loss incurred since these are mostly perishable food crops

3.       If this happens, Georgia may lose over $billion if hypothetically, only 50% of its specialty crops are harvested.  Nationwide, the entire fresh food industry may lose $billions in crop loss given the scenario describe above.

4.       Although the U.S. exports significant amount of specialty crop to Mexico and Canada, the U.S. also imports more from these two countries than we sell to them.  Thus, if the Covid-19 pandemic results in shutting down the boarders and restricting visas to migrant labor, that would deprive entry of the badly need fresh imported food from Mexico and Canada to subsidize the insufficient U.S. domestic production.  That would further exacerbate the expected shortage caused by the lack of seasonal workers to handpick U.S. grown crops.

5.       The huge shortage of both domestic and imported food would affect the entire fresh food value, supply chain, and result in a nationwide food crisis.

6.       Furthermore, it would exponentially spike prices of the existing limited domestic quantity.

7.       The lack of seasonal and/or permanent labor force needed for harvesting might put enormous financial pressure on our hardworking growers and might put some out of business without any form of government assistance1.

1Secretary Pompeo, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has just relaxed the H-2A policy by waiving interviews to seasonal migrant workers whose visas expired 48 month ago including those who never had an H-2 visa.   The relaxed policy is aimed at mitigating the foreseen problems vis-à-vis Covid-19, seasonal workers and national food supply shortages and, eventual price hike.  

For more information, contact the Georgia Extension Vegetable Team:

Esendugue Greg Fonsah, Professor, REI Coordinator and Extension Agribusiness Economist, Fruits, Vegetables and Pecans, University of Georgia, Tifton, GA 31793; gfonsah@uga.edu Tel: 229-386-3512

Justin Shealey, County Extension Coordinator, Echols County, 109 Courthouse Street, Statenville, GA, 31648, University of Georgia, Email: justin1@uga.edu, Tel: 229-559-5562

Estimated Cost Per Acre of Bare-Ground Vegetable Production Damaged by Hurricane Michael

By: Esendugue Greg Fonsah1, Brian Hayes2, Will Gay3, Ty Torrance5, Justin Shealey5

1Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Georgia, Tifton, GA, 2-5Michel Co., Colquitt Co., Grady Co., and Echols County Extension Coordinators, University of Georgia.

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In Georgia, vegetables are grown using either the plasticulture system and/or on bare-ground. Hurricane Michael affected both cultural practices.  This study focuses on the cost of bare-ground production system damage by the Hurricane.  Our calculations are based on the recommendation of the Extension Vegetable Team, Vegetable Growers and County Agents in South Georgia (Table 1).

Although plasticulture has several advantages, which include higher yields, the system is much more expensive. As a result, many Georgia Growers still use bare-ground production system, which accounts for approximately 64%, equivalent to 38,000 acres of the vegetable production damaged by Hurricane Michael.  Sweet corn was the largest acreage crop at approximately 15,000 acres. Producers using bare-ground production system experienced crops (particularly corn, snap beans, fresh pick, etc.) being laid over, excessive wash-out from rain of rows and field lay-out (roadways, access roads, etc.), and loss of residual fertilizer and soil fumigant. Additionally, land preparation was needed to recover fields for future planting.

 

Table 1: Analysis of the Estimated Costs of Bare-Ground Production Loss Due to Hurricane Michael in South Georgia, 2018.

Description $-Total/Ac
Land structure recovery from Hurricane Michael damage1 
Tractor/driver/equipment – $17.76/A x 2 passes $     35.52
Land prep including mowing and harrowing under damaged plants
Tractor driver @ $15.53/hr. – ½ hr./A x 3 passes2 $ 23.30
Tractor/fuel @ $10/A   x 3 passes $   30.00
Lime – ½ T/A – $36.50/A for soil fertility adjustments $   18.25
Fertilizer – 450 lb./A – $600/ton ($.30/lb.) 3 $ 135.00
Fumigant – 8 gal./A – $ 20/gal. 4 $   160.00
Cover crop to prevent erosion damage
Seed for cover crop – $20/A $ 20.00
Fertilizer for cover crop – $40/A $ 40.00
Planting – tractor/driver/fuel – $17.76/A $ 17.76
Total Bare-ground Production Loss5 $ 479.83

1Land preparation – leveling/rows/roads, etc. 2#hrs/acre depends on the size and/or HP of the tractor. 31.5 x normal rate due to leaching loss. 41.25 x normal rate due to leaching loss & pest pressure. 5These figures are guidelines as growers adopt different agricultural practices and obtain different prices for inputs.

To recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Michael, the following agricultural practices were needed: (a). Land preparation due to unharvested crop, (b) plant material to prevent spread of insect and disease field wash-out, and; (c). replacement of fertilizer/fumigant lost through leaching.  In many cases, a cover crop was required to prevent soil erosion by water or wind.  Table 1 below is an estimated breakdown economic analysis itemizing the operational recovery cost per acre for bare-ground field production damaged by Hurricane Michael.

The total cost of bare-ground production loss due to the October 10, 2018 Hurricane Michael damage in South Georgia is estimated at $479.83/acre (Table 1).

If you have further questions or need any clarification, by all means, do not hesitate to contact us via email: gfonsah@uga.edu; hayesbw@uga.edu; torrance@uga.edu; wgay5@uga.edu; bstarr@uga.edu; or justin1@uga.edu

Estimated Cost Per Acre of Removing and Replacing Plastic Mulch Damaged by Hurricane Michael in Georgia

By:  Esendugue Greg Fonsah1 and Justin Shealey2

1Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Georgia, Tifton, GA, 2Echols County Extension Coordinator, University of Georgia, Statenville, GA.

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After the damage caused by Hurricane Michael on October 10, 2018 for which the Georgia Vegetable industry suffered a total loss of $480 million, we decided to calculate the estimated cost/Acre of removing and replacing destroyed plastic mulch, by growers. Our calculations are based on the recommendation of the Extension Vegetable Team, information gathered from Vegetable Growers and County Agents during our multiple visits of vegetable farms in South Georgia to collect data needed to generate 2020 vegetable budgets for the state of Georgia (Table 1).

Georgia vegetables are grown either in a system called ‘plasti-culture’ or on ‘bare-ground’. There are many advantages of plasti-culture production including higher yields, but it is much more expensive than ‘bare-ground’ production.  For growers using plasti-culture, a planting bed approximately 12 inches high and 3-4 feet wide covered with plastic is required.  Beneath the plastic, drip lines are run for irrigation, fertilization and pesticide applications.  In addition, during the process of laying the plastic mulch, the bed is fumigated for soil borne diseases and weed seeds and/or weed control.

It is important to note that Growers normally use the plastic bed for 3-4 crops before having to reshape and re-fumigate the beds, re-place the plastic and drip lines. In many cases and during our visit and assessment, Hurricane Michael damaged or destroyed the beds and plastic, requiring re-

laying of plastic, drip lines and fumigation. Table 1 below is a simplified breakdown economic analysis itemizing the operational recovery cost per acre for possible replacement of field production, plasti-culture damaged by Hurricane Michael.

Table 1: Analysis of the $-Value of Replacing Plastic Mulch Loss Due to Hurricane Michael    

               to the South Georgia Vegetable Industry, 2018

Description $-Total/Ac
Removal of plant material, plastic mulch, stakes and disposal at land fill.
Removal of plastic – 4 workers @ $14.53/hr. – 2 hr./A $ 116.24
Removal of drip tape – 2 workers @ $14.53/hr. -1 hr./A $     29.00
Removal of stakes – 6 workers @ $14.53/hr. – 1 hr./A $     87.18
Removal of string – 4 workers @ $14.53/hr. – 1 hr./A1 $     58.12
Mowing old plants – 1 worker @ 14.53/hr. – 1 hr./A $     14.53
Plus fuel $       9.60
Disposal at landfill – $     50.00
                                 Total of Planting Material Removal $ 364.67
Laying new plastic, land prep, materials, fertilization, fumigation, labor.
Land prep – tractor/driver/fuel – 3 tractors – $10/A $     30.00
Fertilizer – 300 lb./A – $600/ton ($.30/lb.) $     90.00
Fumigant – 135 lb./A – $4.40/lb. $   594.00
Plastic – 8,712 ft./A – $0.055/ft.2 $   479.16
Tape – 8,712 ft./A – $ 0.014/ft. $   125.84
Tractor & Equipment to Lay plastic $   150.00
Labor – Fumigation/Fertilization/plastic laying: 10 workers @ $14.53/hr. – 1 hr./A $   145.30
Irrigation Hookup – 2 workers @ $14.53/hr. – 2 hr./A $     58.12
Stakes – 2200/A – $0.25/stake $   550.00
Labor to install stakes – 12 workers @ $14.53 – 1 hr./A $   174.36
Total Laying New Plastic, land-prep, material, fertilization, fumigation, labor $ 2,396.78
                                                   Grand Total Costs3 $2,761.45

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1Cost of strings are not included because that is a cost for the new crop and in normal operations, the string is lost.

2Plastic costs will be higher for tomato growers because they would need silver mulch to control White fly instead of using black mulch.

3The Grand Total Cost does not include interest rate of 6.5% used in the enterprise budgets.

 

The total $-value for replacing plastic mulch loss due to Hurricane Michael to the South Georgia Vegetable Industry, 2018 is estimated at $2,761.45 (Table 1).

 

If you have further questions or need any clarification, by all means, do not hesitate to contact us via phone 229-386-3512 or 229-559-5562 office or email: gfonsah@uga.edu or justin1@uga.edu

Hurricane Michael Hit Georgia Pecans Industry

By Esendugue Greg Fonsah, Doug Collins, Lenny Wells and Will Hudson

Hurricane Michael arrived the heart of Georgia pecans producing areas in the early morning of Wednesday October 10, 2018 and left a devastating blow to the entire industry.  Speaking with County Agents and Specialists, Mitchell, Lee, and Dougherty Counties that contribute to a third of total Georgia pecans suffered close or more than 50%.  The hurricane came at the most vulnerable time imagine.  Pecans crops that were close to harvest were destroyed.  Several pecan trees and nuts were knocked down.   Other producing areas such as Peach, Crisp, Leesburg and Bainbridge were affected with varying losses ranging from 20- 40% according to initial reports.  There were also structural damage.  Although initial loss is valued at about $200 million, this might change quickly after a comprehensive assessment is carried out.

Courtesy of Dr. Lenny Wells.

Understanding Your Generic Base Conversion Options With the Seed Cotton Program

by Don Shurley and Adam N. Rabinowitz

We have developed a third publication in a series of fact sheets on the new seed cotton program. Included in this document is a little history of what happened with the 2014 farm bill that led to the development of the seed cotton program.  We provide an example of the decision process and identify things to think about when making the decision.

The PDF can be downloaded here.