Farmers on the Coastside and across the state are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some are much worse off than others.
A new report commissioned by the California Farm Bureau found that farms and ranches across the state are projected to lose between $6 billion and $9 billion due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Dairy farmers, nurseries and grape growers are bearing the worst of the losses.
The study says that relative success depends on how reliant a farmer or industry is on restaurant versus retail sales. But overall, “the losses far outweigh the isolated benefits.”
Coastside farmers agreed that how they’re selling their product, either to restaurants or directly to consumers and retailers, has a huge effect on who is surviving — or even seeing business boom — and who is struggling.
For Yerba Buena Nursery owner Kathy Crane, the divide is clear. She sells her native plants directly to the public from her nursery on Highway 92 but has seen neighboring businesses forced to switch from restaurant sales to retail delivery options in order to stay afloat.
San Mateo County Farm Bureau President B.J. Burns said it’s too early to know the total effects of the pandemic on local farmers, but he agrees that the distribution method makes a difference. He said as compared to those supplying to restaurants, farmers that market directly to stores are better off, sometimes up to 50 percent. Farmers markets have also continued to be a consistent source of revenue, but Burns said only time will tell.
Every year, he said, farmers face the question of how much crop to plant based on projections of pricing and demands that are months out and often inaccurate. He said it’s unlikely that anyone will know the true effects of the pandemic until late fall, when local pandemic conditions could be completely different than they are today.
“If you don't plant, you’re going to wish you did,” Burns said. “If you do, you’re probably going to wish you didn't. It’s a crapshoot. You just don't know. ... I don't think anybody can predict it.”
But farmers are struggling with more than just sales. Like every other industry, they’ve had to adapt their production to meet health requirements and changes from their suppliers. Plus they, too, are struggling to make decisions to keep their workers safe.
That’s the dilemma Crane is facing. Her losses aren’t just about changes to her market as fewer people buy her plants. In fact, she could be open and selling her native plants to the increasing influx of tourists coming over the hill each weekend. But to Crane, the threat of the virus is her primary concern. She is keeping her doors closed most days, filling online orders only to protect herself and her employees.
“If I got sick, my business would close,” Crane said. “None of us are comfortable. None of my staff is willing to go near the customers. I am the only one who is doing it, and I am not really comfortable doing it either.”
Instead, she’s working seven days a week, answering emails day and night to fill as many orders as possible to make up the gap. She said hard work and creativity will get her through the pandemic, but it won’t be easy.
“It requires a lot more,” Crane said. “I’m working twice as hard, twice as many hours, to achieve way fewer sales.”