Hillman Enjoys Wild Ride of Covering Farm News

“Little did we know on March 12, driving home from AgSafe’s annual conference in the heart of California, the wild ride of farm news we would cover for the next month and a half,” said Taylor Hillman (AgNet West Radio Network, Clovis, California). “My co-worker Brian German and I discussed the possibilities as the week progressed and public safety and health were incrementally changing at the conference. We concluded that no matter how intense recommendations or actual enforced orders became, the farming industry would continue because someone has to feed the world. What we did not see coming was the impact consumer reactions to those recommendations would have.”

“When the first social distancing orders were given and leaders were recommending people to stay at home, fear buying was something that ensued. Everyone heard and saw the mad rush to buy toilet paper and paper towels, but there was also a dash to buy specialty crop products. Citrus, strawberries, avocados, and many others saw a spike in fresh-produce sales for about two weeks starting around St. Patrick’s Day,” Hillman said.

“Distancing recommendations turned into more serious orders during that time, and the food service sector all but shut down. Restaurants closed, schools transitioned to distance learning, and event centers shuttered. The uptick in fresh-produce sales carried others during that time. The California Avocado Commission told AgNet West in late March, ‘We understand from the packers that retail sales are brisk and seem to off-set some of the declines on the foodservice side.’ Citrus also was one of the products flying off the shelf, but after about three weeks of pandemic buying, the fresh-produce market came back down to earth. California Citrus Mutual told AgNet West, ‘As a new normal is starting to set in, we are getting some unpredictable orders and sales. We don’t know how this market is going to shape up.’”

Several industries were forced to leave products unharvested to rot in the field with no food service markets and just average fresh produce sales. A Florida farmer told Vegetable and Specialty Crop News’ Clint Thompson, “We’ve left about 2 million pounds of green beans and about 5 million pounds of cabbage.”

Social-media posts of rotting produce caused AgNet West staff to switch from reporting a silver-lining to fear and plummeting markets.

“Adhering to the social distancing standards, our team covered the shift as best as possible. We talked with associations, growers, and allied industries as aid letters and lobbying efforts commenced. Unfortunately, another negative narrative was just beginning for our industries. The focus shifted to agricultural labor with news of border shutdowns and the safety of those workers. Fortunately, there was some common sense on the immigration and ag-worker issue with waivers for the industry. However, agricultural commissioners feared that agriculture, as a whole, would get a bad rap from this pandemic, and they were right,” Hillman said. “In the middle of volatile markets and uncertainty, ag-labor groups went on the offensive and started a campaign about essential workers not being properly protected during this pandemic. Again, our team’s focus had to change. After we asked how producers are being impacted and what they are doing about it, we needed to include what they were doing to protect workers.

“We are a company that operates two radio networks, two magazines, and two events. Operating remotely has not been an issue. However, in the span of six weeks our coverage went from relatively positive, to slightly concerning, then drastic and petitioning, and now defensive and wary. That is a wild ride for an essential industry that is feeding the world. I know our farm-broadcasting brethren around the nation have been on this coaster too, so hang in there make sure you are sharing factual farm knowledge for the general public to see and hear,” Hillman concluded.