With reports that farmers across the state have been forced to dump truckloads of fresh fruit, vegetables, chicken, seafood and other meat because of plummeting demand from restaurants, Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried launched a new website she says will help connect farmers with consumers. But whether or not the site actually leads to a pickup in sales remains to be seen.
Fried has been under fire this week after other state leaders accused her of playing partisan politics with the coronavirus instead of focusing on her job to protect the state’s agriculture industry. She has publicly blamed Governor Ron DeSantis for coronavirus deaths she says could have been prevented with a stricter lockdown.
Meanwhile, farmers in Florida are hurting, and the new website is nothing more than a spreadsheet listing some food items for sale along with contact information if a buyer happens to be interested. It’s not clear how the site will benefit farmers and food producers any more than their existing listings on their proprietary websites, where consumers can purchase the goods directly. Fried’s site doesn’t even have direct links to the producer’s websites. Visitors are forced to email or call the farm, or look it up on a search engine.
“We have worked tirelessly to support Florida’s farmers during COVID-19 by connecting them with buyers and consumers, and our Florida Farm to You commodities list is the latest way we’re doing so,” said Fried. “There’s no silver bullet to solving the decreased demand from food service businesses, but by connecting our agricultural producers with willing takers, we can help move Florida-grown products from fields to consumers.”
One of the earliest attempts to connect through the site came from Clewiston-based Alligators, Inc., which listed 6,000 pounds of alligator meat for sale in 25 pound boxes. Alligator meat normally retails between $15-$20 per pound, which means that if the meat goes to waste, they’ll lose about $100,000 in potential revenue.
Other producers are also desperately seeking customers, and they say they’re in close contact with state officials, but it’s too early to tell if the website will be enough.
“There is a lot of communication, but my company and others in the respective industry have not seen any true benefit yet,” said Gabe Bernal of Miami-based All American Citrus. His company listed 33-pound bags of oranges for sale to retailers and supermarket chains. He adds that state agriculture leaders could help more by requiring larger retailers to buy a higher percentage of produce from U.S. suppliers, but his business is undercut by less expensive produce from places like Mexico. “Cheap labor will always play a role in the purchasing power due to incomparable wages and lack of restrictions.”
“If no government regulation is put in place to help out small businesses who are suffering due to this circumstance, small business failure is the most likely outcome,” says Bernal.
The site went live on April 9th, and at press time, 39 producers listed products on the site, including sweet corn and other vegetables, herbs, flowers, chicken and a wide variety of seafood.