Garden State’s farmers struggle with impact of COVID-19 on agricultural industry

Those that sold to supermarkets fared better than those that relied on restaurants and schools

Third-generation farmer Eric Hensel says in March he took what he was growing in his greenhouses and transplanted it into the fields. The alternative was throwing away his hard work and money, and he says that wasn’t an option.

“We did have a government stimulus payment that helped a lot. The markets were just better than what we had feared,” he said.

The farming business is supply and demand. Vineland Produce Auction is the place where Jersey farmers have come for more than 80 years to sell their crops to brokers.

“The brokers are in different locations and when COVID hit we were able to let them all buy remotely,” said manager Robert Pustizzi.

Brokers who sold to supermarkets saw business spike during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, brokers who typically sell to restaurants and schools suffered more.

New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher says COVID-19 forced a big shift in industry.

“Wholesalers became retailers, retailers ended up doing home delivery,” he said.

Vineland Mayor Anthony Fanucci said farmers continued producing and worked with the health department to make sure employees were tested.

“They knew that they had to make sure that anything they were packaging or touching had to go out and had to be as clean as possible and as sanitary as possible. They did a phenomenal job with that,” he said.

Hensel’s grandfather bought his farm in 1910. He says finding labor hasn’t been a struggle, but keeping his employees safe took strategy. In addition to social distancing and masks, people who lived in the same house or drove together stayed together on the shift.

Hensel said rain has had a bigger impact on his farm this year than the coronavirus.

“One problem we have now is with the rains. That’s really thrown us out where we couldn’t get our plantings in at the right time. Our pepper crop has just been a disaster because of the rains,” said Hensel. “I can show you some fields that are just devastated from it.”

If and how the agriculture industry changes long-term as a result of the human spread of the pandemic has yet to be seen. But Hensel is focusing on the current problem at hand: figuring out how to salvage what Mother Nature did to his crops.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight