California farmer destroys lettuce crop after coronavirus shutters restaurant market

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Californian farmer Jack Vessey would normally be harvesting thousands of cartons of lettuce during this season, but this year, he's destroying his crops instead.

HOLTVILLE, CALIFORNIA (REUTERS) - There should be tractors rumbling across Jack Vessey's ranch, pulling wagons full of fresh-cut romaine lettuce to be packed and shipped to restaurants and grocery stores across the United States.

Instead, as the coronavirus outbreak upends the nation's food distribution network, a tractor and plow destroyed rows and rows of green produce on Wednesday (April 15).

"You put your blood, sweat and tears into a crop," said Vessey, president of Vessey and Company, Inc. "To just disc it into the ground: It's painful."

The lockdown in most US states that started in mid-March created a logjam of fruit and vegetables bound for restaurants across the country. The effects of the business closures rippled throughout the supply chain, reaching even the produce still rooted in farmland as customers cancel orders.

The decision to destroy the crop didn't come easy for Vessey. But he said he couldn't justify paying for labour, and packaging and storage for a crop that distributors were not buying. He laid off 150 to 200 seasonal workers up to two weeks early.

Vessey, a fourth-generation farmer, plowed under some 350 acres of lettuce, or approximately US$1.46 million (S$2.1 million) worth of crop. He is not alone. Other growers in California, the top US fruit and vegetable producing state, are facing the same dilemma.

Imperial County, California, on the Arizona border produces around US$1.2 billion in vegetables per year, according to Kay Pricola, the executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.

Most of that is harvested between November and April. In the summer months, vegetable production shifts north to the Salinas Valley in central California.

While it's difficult to measure exactly how much produce has been destroyed so far, Cory Lunde, senior director of communications for Western Growers Association, said the impact has been significant because up to US$285 million worth of California produce went to restaurants, schools and hotels each week before restaurants shuttered.

Jack Vessey stands in what remains of his field of lettuce in California on April 15, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Vessey said he still had 150 acres of lettuce to be harvested when his distributor stopped taking shipments.

"It starts piling up in front of you, and behind you, and everywhere," said Vessey. "Easily over a million dollars, left in the field."

The uprooting of crops come as food banks across the United States witness a surge in demand as millions face unemployment due to the lockdown.

While farmers make the hard decision to plow under crops, David Magana, a senior analyst at Rabobank said the drop in food supply will be felt by consumers eager to buy produce at grocery stores.

"We could see a decline in supplies in the next few months," he said. "Prices are going to increase."

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