Pandemic clouds future for Valley agriculture industry

Workers harvest a field of onions Wednesday in Pharr. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

PHARR — There’s an onion patch here, just on the edge of the city.

Off in the distance to one side there’s a hospital. On the other, there’s a strip club, just up the road from a couple of houses. Those are the only signs of civilization you can see standing in the middle of the onion patch, except from the traffic buzzing down Owassa and Jackson.

If you don’t look close, there’s no signs of the coronavirus pandemic here in the middle of the onion patch. Men and women still walk stooped along the rows, maybe 50 of them, plucking up onions, snipping off the roots and dumping them into buckets and tow sacks.

It’s probably the most people you’ve seen in one place in the past month, except at grocery stores. You hear the sound of shears clipping and tractors running and birds chirping. Not many of the harvesters wear facemasks.

“In the packing houses you see rubber gloves and facemasks inside an arena where you don’t get as much wind moving and stuff,” said Tommy Wilkins, the shipper who will distribute many of the onions. “The key here is that when you need to go to the facilities, we’ve got hand-washing stations, and we’re trying to keep people as spaced as we can.”

If you look real close though, you can see a couple of signs of the coronavirus. There’s facemasks hung from rear view mirrors in the onion harvesters’ cars. There’s not quite as much traffic on Owassa and Jackson. The strip club across the street has a clever message on its marquee.

“CLOTHED TILL APRIL 30,” the sign reads.

The pandemic has affected the agriculture industry more than that onion field would suggest Wilkins, the director of business development and sales for Grow Farms Texas, said.

“I’ve done this 47 years, I’ve never seen anything like this. You think about 9/11 was the biggest thing we’d ever seen, but for the most part that one was in a certain geographic region and the rest of the country got back to normal. This one here’s affecting everyone, and we don’t when it’ll change,” he said. “It’s more unknown than I’ve ever seen. I’ve dealt with farmers my whole life, but I feel for them today.”

As a produce shipper, Wilkins will be responsible for making sure many of the onions in that field make their way to grocery store shelves in the near future.

“Albertsons, Tom Thumbs, Safeway, Brookshires, United, Hy-Vee,” Wilkins said. “We’re lucky. The food service side has just been decimated. The school business, theme parks, restaurants, they’ve just been decimated.”

Farmers with crops in the ground destined for restaurants and other foodservice businesses that have been closed for a month have few options, Wilkins said.

“Plow it,” he said. “It costs a lot of money to even donate product to a food bank, just the sheer harvest and transportation. Sometimes it’s best to just leave it in the field. That’s the sad part about farming, it’s supply and demand, and the demand has totally been thrown off course, so we’re in uncharted waters.”

We’ve already seen some of the results of those unchartered waters, Wilkins said.

“We saw an immediate panic buying three weeks ago. We talk about Fourth of July and Thanksgiving-type business; we were a few times stronger than that, but it didn’t slow down and it’s still strong,” he said. “From a produce standpoint we’re back 90 to 100% stocked today, so it leveled out.”

According to Wilkins, grocery stores are selling more onions and potatoes and carrots, staples for soups and stews and homestyle meals. He says he’s not sure whether that will be a permanent shift.

“Things won’t be the same, we don’t know what we’re headed into. Have we gotten to where we’ve turned the family on and will continue to cook for a while? I think that’s the big question on all of our minds,” he said.

No one knows when there will again be demand for produce from the foodservice industry, Wilkins said. Even if the restaurants open up, no one knows that they’ll be heavily patronized, and it’s liable to be a rocky road to opening that sector up again from a produce perspective.

“You can’t turn on more eggs; the chickens only lay so many eggs a day, and when you deplete that supply and put stress on it you’ve got to wait for that supply to catch up,” Wilkins said. “The big panic is going to be if we get a stress to fill up the foodservice side when they turn it back on. It’s going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the supply side to fill that pipeline up to get them back into business.”

There has been one grim upside to the economic turmoil for the agriculture industry. Tommy Hanka, the grower of those onions in Pharr, said he’s having no trouble finding people to harvest onions.

“There was a young man out here the other day, and I noticed that he articulated very well, and I said, ‘Man, what are you doing out here working in the field?’ He said, ‘I work at a local restaurant, I’m a chef, but we’ve been shut down for a couple of weeks and I need some money. I need money now,’” Hanka said. “That’s why we have so many people out here, because they need money. They need money today.”

Hanka said some of his other harvesters this year also started working for him after losing their jobs at restaurants or stores. He says the financial suffering people are enduring because of COVID-19 regulations could mean that the cure is more harmful than the disease itself.

“I think it’s time to open this country up. The economic devastation that it’s causing individuals is pretty severe,” he said. “The solution that we come up with is not going to be perfect for everyone.”

mwilson@themonitor.com