Texas specialty crop sector hit hard by COVID-19


Pandemic created ‘perfect storm’ for many vegetable, fruit producers


The specialty crop sector in Texas — consisting primarily of fruits and vegetables — has been one of the hardest hit sectors of agriculture due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to agricultural economists, industry groups and agricultural producers.

“Most fruits and vegetables are consumed when fresh and are highly perishable commodities,” said Joe Outlaw, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist and co-director of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center, AFPC, at Texas A&M University, College Station. “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of most restaurants and schools has caused a major reduction in demand for produce. The pandemic has also caused significant disruptions to the supply chain and agricultural systems.”

Outlaw said while some of that reduction in demand from restaurants and other food-service outlets has translated to higher demand at grocery stores, different packaging requirements, changes in volume needed, other factors are affecting fresh produce prices, mainly at the farmgate level.

A recent report by the AFPC on how the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected Texas agricultural production indicates if the pandemic persists, Texas fruit and vegetable producers could be left without outlets for their highly perishable products and ultimately lose more than $397 million.

Fruit and vegetable producers in South Texas have experienced anywhere between a 20% to 50% reduction in sales. Additionally, imports of fruits and vegetables from Mexico went down 18% in April, so the demand is still low for both domestic and imported produce.

Many producers are struggling to find outlets for their produce and many grocery stores have significantly reduced the variety of items they stock, both of which have had a serious impact on Texas specialty crop producers.

Components of the ‘perfect storm’ –

“Overall, due to COVID-19, the short-run outlook for specialty crop producers in Texas is complicated,” Outlaw explained. “The sudden loss of most food-service outlets for highly perishable products along with good winter production of fruits and vegetables in the state is causing low prices across most fresh produce commodities. Changing consumer purchasing habits at the grocery store, demand uncertainty and labor shortages have created the perfect storm for specialty crop producers in Texas and throughout the U.S.”

The COVID-19 situation has had an impact on almost all aspects of agricultural production systems, including those affecting specialty crop producers,” said Daniel Leskovar, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research vegetable physiologist and director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde.

“In the Texas Winter Garden, specialty crop producers have had to deal with supply chain disruptions, lower demand, social distancing restrictions, labor shortages and other factors that have kept them from getting their products from the farm to the table,” he said.

Leskovar noted while growing conditions in the state’s Winter Garden area bode well for most specialty crops already in the ground, these factors will likely continue to affect producer profitability for some time to come.

“Right now, we’re down to about 50% production,” said Brandon Laffere, co-owner of L&L Farms in Batesville, which produces lettuce, cabbage, spinach, broccoli and other specialty crops. “We took the biggest hit with lettuce since that is more perishable and our food service outlets weren’t ordering it.”

Now, Laffere said, they are growing summer crops, including squash and watermelon, but are still uncertain as to how much of those they will be able to sell once harvested.

“Our biggest challenge is the unknown, but we’re optimistic things will get better,” he said.

- to be continued. -