Normally, the staff of Salinas-based agribusiness D’Arrigo Brothers are planning one to two years out what they’ll plant on which ranches, based on projected market demand and available acreage. Now, they’re thinking a month at a time.
“The worst thing we can do is plant these crops, and if you can’t harvest, you’re in big trouble,” says John D’Arrigo, president/CEO/chair of the board. That’s because just getting a crop of lettuce to the point it’s ready to harvest costs close to $5,000 an acre, and if there’s no buyer at the other end, it leaves growers with those sunk costs. For that reason, D’Arrigo Brothers is one of several local ag companies to disk fields of lettuce, meaning they plow it under.
Lettuce is just coming into season in the Salinas Valley after growers move to Arizona for the winter, and these early crops are ready to harvest while restaurants are closed or doing to-go business only due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (D’Arrigo Brothers has been OK, because the majority of their sales go to retailers; only about 30 percent goes to foodservice, like restaurants, hotel caterers or school cafeterias.)
“The demand is there for retail. But what happens with everything else that no longer has a buyer?” asks Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association. He doesn’t know how many acres have been disked under, but Monterey County Agricultural Commission Henry Gonzales is trying to find out, and says his staff is currently doing a phone survey of growers to find out. (Gonzales says the impact so far is just on domestic sales; exports have remained steady.)
Valadez says his priority is keeping enough volume in the system so the workforce can continue working. “We want to give employees a fighting chance to survive. What can we do to survive and stave off economic jeopardy and keep it running, just keep enough gas in the system?”
That system – the agriculture industry – is Monterey County’s largest industry. And lettuce is the top crop, worth $1.2 billion in 2018, or about a quarter of the total.
Strawberries are number two, at nearly $700 million. The berry season is just ramping up locally, and sales have been strong so far this year. California Strawberry Commission spokesperson Carolyn O’Donnell says the commission surveyed growers, and only about 15 percent of business is in foodservice, which she hopes means steady demand, but no one knows: “This year is like no other year. It’s hard to predict at this point what’s going to happen.”
Some demand could be created from increased need at food banks; D’Arrigo, for example, says his company donated about 250,000 pounds of produce to food banks in the past month, but they can’t afford to hire harvest crews just to donate a crop.
Next come decisions about how many acres to plant for harvest about three months out.
“Do I go ahead and roll the dice and plant thousands of acres?” D’Arrigo says. “That’s a hard decision. How do you out-guess that thing?”