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As produce rots in the field, one Florida farmer and an army of volunteers combat ‘a feeling of helplessness’ — one cucumber at a time

Volunteers with the Society of St. Andrew glean cucumbers to donate to people in need at Long & Scott Farms in Mount Dora, Fla., on April 22. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

MOUNT DORA, Fla. — Hank Scott believes the bright green rows of ripening cucumbers are the best yield on his land since his father started the farm in 1963.

During any other spring, he'd oversee an army of workers harvesting cucumbers and shipping truckloads to pickling companies along the East Coast. But the coronavirus pandemic has closed or crippled the businesses where his produce would end up.

So instead, Scott, 64, invited volunteer pickers with the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian hunger relief organization, to glean as much produce as they could and donate it to nearby food banks. Anything green they left behind will likely be plowed back into the ground, feeding no one and adding to the farm's ballooning losses.

“Between them not being able to make a profit off it and us not being able to take the surplus, there’s just a feeling of helplessness,” said Kathleen Bean, who volunteered to pick with her husband and son at Long & Scott Farms about an hour’s drive northwest of Orlando. After filling trucks and vans, more than two-thirds of the cucumber field remained untouched.

Scott and the volunteer cucumber pickers were trying to bring some sense to what has emerged as one of the most perverse outcomes of the pandemic: farmers forced to destroy fields full of crops while a growing number of families can't afford enough food.

On one end are produce growers who supply restaurants, canning companies and theme parks that have been closed for weeks. Meanwhile, increasing unemployment and a convulsing economy have sent many families to the foodlines. In the most agonizing instances, hungry mouths are just a few miles from rotting crops, separated by economic turmoil and ruptured supply chains.

As the gleaners rescue vegetable after vegetable, they are both a final lifeline for desperate families and a sign of just how badly the novel coronavirus has kneecapped the systems that are supposed to keep everyone fed.

The Florida Department of Agriculture estimates that produce farmers like Scott have lost $522.5 million through mid-April. And they are not the only ones with a perishable product that will reach the end of its shelf life before it even leaves the farm. Dairy farmers and cooperatives across the country have dumped millions of gallons of milk down drains or onto fields as cheese plants and dairy producers contend with an unmovable surplus. Workers at pork and poultry manufacturing plants have been sickened by the coronavirus and in some cases died, placing a harsh spotlight on their working conditions during the pandemic and putting another kink in the supply chain with no resolution in sight.

By the time the country reopens, Scott fears it will be too late to save this season’s cucumber crop. It might also be too late to save his farm, one of the last-remaining family growers in a region that in recent decades has been defined by encroaching suburbs and shrinking agriculture.

“In the beginning, we knew that we would take a hit, but we didn’t really realize that they would shut every daggum thing down and then all our sales would stop,” Scott said. Cucumbers “grow up a size a day so if we shut it down . . . for the week, everything that we should have picked that week gets lost. You can’t turn these pickles on and off like a light switch.”

'We will continue to struggle'

On most days, an average of 35 people click on the food-finder button on the Web page of the Orlando-based Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, the state’s largest.

In the last month, as the coronavirus has cost central Floridians their jobs, the number of clicks has ballooned to more than 1,200 a day.

“I’ve been doing this work 26 years across the country — and through lots of disaster relief. This is as bad as it’s ever been.” said Dave Krepcho, president and CEO of the food bank. “Pre-virus, you had your population that was in poverty and you had this other population of working households that were struggling to pay the rent. They were on the edge. This pandemic has put them over the edge.”

Many of the restaurants that used to drop-off regular donations to the collection center on Mercy Drive are closed or struggling. But Second Harvest and other food pantries have been getting more donations from farmers like Scott. While Krepcho’s grateful he can still feed hungry people, he concedes that’s a sign of a bigger problem: there is nowhere else for the farms’ produce to go.

“The charitable food system is not equipped to accept all that product even if we can get our hands on it,” Krepcho said. “We’re the largest in Florida, so we have massive coolers and freezers and we can handle a lot of produce. But even with all our capacity, there are times that we can’t accept it.”

Adam Putnam, the former Florida commissioner of agriculture who is also a farmer said that with no place to sell or donate their crops, “some farmers just put the product out by the road of their farm and just give it away. It’s just as frustrating for them. They don’t want to plow their crops under. But when it’s going to cost money to harvest it and send it somewhere when they’ve already lost a boatload of money, it’s just not a good business decision.”

After news programs showed pictures of Scott’s farm plowing perfectly good crops into the ground, they received a deluge of hate mail from people who chastised them for not giving it to hungry people.

Scott’s family responded with a Facebook post that touted their charitable giving — 4 million to 5 million pounds of produce a year — but also spoke about just how difficult and expensive it is to reconfigure a mammoth supply chain that moves truckloads of food at harvest time.

“At this point we are struggling to pay our employees, as is everyone, so how can we possibly pay to harvest the crops only to be given away?” the post said. “ . . . Without drastic changes, and if we don’t get the country back to business as usual, we will continue to struggle, and you cannot get mad at the farmer who is forced to have to leave crops to rot in the field.”

'Too little too late'

Finding places for Scott’s crops — and figuring out a way to help his farm survive — is something that’s perplexing people at all levels, from the people who live in Scott’s house to government officials dispensing billions in aid.

On Tuesday, several of Scott’s family members were working the farm’s market, packaging and selling freshly picked corn, heads of cabbage and, of course, pickles. The sod business has been on the uptick and they’re looking for a sponsor for the fall corn maze. Still, none of it is enough if their pickles and other cash crops waste away in the Florida sun.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s office has started a website that directs shoppers to farm stores. She’s also lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state’s congressional delegation for policies that would put more cash in the hands of Florida farmers — or at least give them a competitive edge in other markets.

Last week, the USDA passed $19 billion in agriculture relief. But Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat whose agency is independent from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, said the benefit to Florida farmers would be nominal. Of the total, $2.1 billion goes to specialty crops like cucumbers. The program puts a cap of $125,000 per commodity and gives $250,000 for each individual farm or rancher, Fried said.

“We are afraid that it is too little too late,” she said.

Under the USDA plan, the federal government will also buy $300 million worth of produce, meat and dairy products from farmers, ranchers and pay distributors to ship the goods to food bank hubs.

“This program will not only provide immediate relief for our farmers and ranchers, but it will also allow for the purchase and distribution of our agricultural abundance to help our fellow Americans in need,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters on a call explaining the plan.

Scott spent most of last week looking for places to send his ripening crops — buyers preferably, but also charities in need. The largest charities help pay packaging costs for donated food, if he can find a way to get it to them. The large bins he uses to ship cucumbers to pickle producers aren’t feasible for food banks distributing fresh produce to families.

Jennifer Novack had spent the morning picking pickles for charity with the Society of St. Andrew, but stopped by the farmers market for some honey butter when she overheard Scott’s dilemma. She’d been furloughed by Disney, and had a bit of extra time on her hands. If there was an opportunity to help some more hungry people, she wondered aloud if she had some extra cash, too.

“Well, how many crates do you need?” she asked the farmer. “How much do they cost? Maybe I can pitch in a few dollars.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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