Hawaii farmers are no strangers to disaster, having faced drought, flooding, windstorms, pests and disease. Yet COVID-19 is presenting an extraordinary calamity.
Unlike traditional disasters that destroy crops, impacts from the novel coronavirus have wiped out much of the market to sell what local farmers produce — from fruits and vegetables to flowers and livestock.
Phyllis Shimabukuro- Geiser, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said recently that some farmers reported losing 50% to 60% of their market last month largely because of hotel and restaurant shutdowns.
Negative impacts also stem from elimination of farmers markets, closed schools and reduced sales to restaurants, many of which remain open for only takeout orders.
“Farmers are losing business and are on the brink of shutting down,” Gov. David Ige said earlier this month. “Now, more than ever, they need our help.”
Considerable assistance is being offered through government aid as well as creative ways to deliver freshly harvested food to new customers including food banks, prisons and consumers at home.
Still, there could be long-lasting impacts on Hawaii food production at a time when many advocates of agriculture have been trying to expand the industry and reduce the state’s dependence on imported food to enhance local food security.
Agriculture is a major industry in Hawaii, with 7,328 farms that produced goods valued at $564 million in 2017, according to the most recent farm census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some of Hawaii’s biggest and priciest crops — such as macadamia nuts, coffee and seed corn — are largely exported. But most of what is grown locally is consumed locally.
J. Ludovico Farm, a family business raising chickens on Oahu mainly for restaurants, is taking an extreme hit amid the ongoing pandemic.
Julius Ludovico, who runs the farm with his wife, a sister and three children, said no one is getting paid while they try to keep the operation going after weekly sales fell from between 200 and 250 fresh birds to about 75.
“It’s kind of hard, for sure,” he said. “We’re trying.”
Shimabukuro-Geiser said producers of leafy greens and hogs also have been hit particularly hard.
The problem for leafy greens is that they are highly perishable and can’t be stored long for sale later.
In an effort to help, Shimabukuro-Geiser said the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is trying to identify available cold storage, including potential facilities at schools and food service companies.
“Our state lacks adequate facilities, especially cold storage,” she said at a state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 meeting earlier this month.
For hog producers, their cheap feed supply from school and restaurant food waste has largely dried up.
“Without that resource, farmers must purchase feed at an unanticipated and high expense,” Shimabukuro- Geiser said.
Fortunately, a wide array of assistance is being made available to farmers.
On Tuesday the state Board of Agriculture approved an emergency loan program in which farms suffering from COVID-19 impacts can borrow up to $150,000 at a 3% interest rate and without some standard loan conditions.
The state Agriculture Department also offers “micro-loans” of up to $25,000 that are easier to apply for and quicker to process. Also, relief is being considered for farmers with state loans or land leases.
Another state program offered up to $2,000 for farmers from a $250,000 fund, and attracted 333 requests seeking more than $1.2 million.
Federal financial aid is being offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Friday that the USDA will provide $16 billion to American farmers for losses during the pandemic. The agency also will spend $3 billion to buy fresh produce, dairy and meat products at immediate risk of going to waste because farmers lost customers.
“Having to dump milk or plow under vegetables ready to market is not only financially distressing, but it’s heartbreaking as well to those who produce them,” Perdue said Friday at a White House briefing.
Farmers also were allowed to apply for $349 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program administered by the SBA after an initial decision to exclude farms from this program. That $349 billion ran out shortly after the program started.
To help farmers sell their products, numerous initiatives have been hatched, including drive-thru farmers markets and expanded community-supported agriculture operations facilitating direct sales to consumers.
The Hawaii Farm Bureau created a drive-thru CSA service it dubbed “Farm to Car” where consumers can place orders via an online marketplace every Thursday and Sunday for pickup the following Wednesday and Saturday, respectively. The organization said it can accommodate up to 300 orders per event and is working to expand.
Hawaii Farm Bureau also is involved in an initiative to sell $200,000 in local farm products to Hawaii Foodbank for distribution to needy households. This effort is being funded by charitable organizations.
An initial $3,500 order was delivered to the food bank Tuesday and comprised 5,000 pounds of produce that included bok choy, squash and long beans from Oahu and papayas and sweet potatoes from Hawaii island.
Other recent efforts to buy from local farms include the Maui County Farm Bureau using more than $60,000 in county grant money to buy produce for families in need, the state prison system buying hundreds of pounds of avocado and breadfruit, and a Hawaii Ulu Producers Cooperative initiative on Hawaii island that seeks $20 donations to provide needy recipients 5-pound bags of steamed and frozen breadfruit, sweet potato, squash or green papaya through Hawaii Food Basket.
Claire Sullivan, director of development and impact for MA‘O Organic Farms in Waianae, said the combination of available aid and new sales channels is helping sustain the produce farm, which previously sold 25% of what it grew to restaurants.
“That market is toast,” she said. “Completely toast.”
Sullivan said MA‘O applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and has offset restaurant customer losses with more CSA sales and increased business at a farmers market still operating in Kakaako.
Ludovico, the Oahu chicken farmer, said he’s looking at state and federal loan programs and has been selling more through Farm Link Hawaii, which takes online orders and delivers to consumers.
Shimabukuro-Geiser urged local farms to apply for assistance and encouraged residents to pitch in as customers.
“We must not let the people who produce our food go out of business,” she said. “Because when we get through this, we will need them to still be there to feed us.”