Florida farmers hoping second round of federal disaster loans save small agriculture businesses

Losses between 10% and 100%, says economist
Posted at 6:02 PM, May 08, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s farmers and ranchers say their business disappeared almost overnight as COVID-19 restrictions shuttered bulk buyers like restaurants. Researchers are now trying to discover how big a bite the virus took as the industry aims to rebound.

Oyster rancher Devin Northway, who works with Panacea Oyster Co-Op in North Florida, said as virus precautions hit eateries, demand for his product dwindled to new lows.

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“Basically, zero within 72 hours,” said Northway. “We had all our product ready last time, then Hurricane Michael came and wiped it out. Now, we finally ramped up. We’re about to have this big harvest, a big boom in the industry. Overnight, a global pandemic.”

Northway isn’t alone. Many farmers in the state are suffering whether they work on or off the water.

No one is certain how extensive the damage is just yet. Initial numbers show decreased demand already cost Florida’s second-largest industry more than half a billion dollars. The state’s more than 47,000 farming operations and two million-plus employees are now hoping losses don’t grow further.

“Agricultural crops are perishable," said Christa Court, an economist at the University of Florida. "They can’t just wait for the consumer to be ready for them.”

Court is trying to find answers to the virus impact question. She’s halfway through an exhaustive survey of the industry. Preliminary data shows almost everyone is losing money, regardless of what they produce.

“Just for the agriculture and aquaculture survey alone, we’ve got over 600 responses," Court said. “All of them are reporting losses between 10% and 100%."

While the consumer may benefit from lower prices due to dropped demand, producer margins are bleeding, forcing some to shutdown without help.

The federal government is trying, this week offering Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs) exclusively for the agriculture sector. Small operations have been scrambling to secure an up to $10,000 forgivable advance from a max $2 million loan.

It’s a fresh chance for crucial dollars after the last round of disaster loans, open to any small business, ran out before many could apply. Florida, in particular, securing the second-highest amount of money in the nation, about $540 million.

Northway’s Co-Op has applied, uncertain if they’ll get lucky this time and get the dollars they say they need to keep their business afloat.

“It’s just a matter of this COVID-19 and what happens next,” said Northway.

Here’s what you should know about COVID-19’s agricultural impacts in Florida:

  • No one is certain of the exact damage yet
  • Although almost every farmer is feeling some kind of loss
  • Prices may be better for buyers but at the expense of the producer
  • Without more federal help, some operations worry they’ll close.