A Farmer’s Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Every morning, Brandy Johnson cooks breakfast for her 6 and 3-year-olds and her husband, Russell. After kissing each other good-bye for the day, Brandy takes their children to school and Russell checks on hundreds of cattle on their family’s ranch. Before leaving the house, they each tuck a holstered 9mm pistol in their waistband.

While some Americans carry a pistol for basic protection, very few must consider defending themselves when they wake up in the morning. The Johnsons are not protecting themselves from grizzly bears, but rather the sometimes-dangerous situations that arise from those trying to cross the border right onto their backyard.

Immigrant Workers as an Essential Part of the U.S. Workforce

Many people from around the world have flocked to this country to build new and better lives for their families and future generations. They provide the labor behind countless essential job functions. Many immigrants harvest our crops and process our meat. Some maintain our households and tend to our homes and gardens. They ceaselessly study to pursue the knowledge and training that opens doors to more opportunities, better lives, and better futures. Some bring special knowledge and skills, already present yet unable to be used as productively as they should.

In total, immigrants of diverse backgrounds, capabilities, needs, and dreams provide an essential source of the energy and commitment that pushes our nation and our world forward. It is an approach to nation-building that has worked well for years. It remains a cornerstone of the traditional view of the American dream.

Many U.S. industries are reliant on this workforce. As of the most recent U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers’ survey report, almost half of farm laborers are unauthorized immigrants. And this isn’t just in the interest of labor costs…many farmers and ranchers have difficulty hiring local workers, as they just aren’t interested. As for the value of the immigrant workforce, a dairy industry study found that if the foreign-born workforce is reduced by 50%, 3,500 dairy farms would close and dairy product prices would increase by 30%. And this study was conducted before COVID-19…who knows what that figure would look like now?

But that vision of immigration as a good and positive thing is under assault. Desperate people taking desperate actions have made the question of immigration increasingly polarized. It is an unpleasant fact that Mexico and Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are rife with poverty, drug cartels, and crime, forcing many citizens to leave their homes. Compassion toward those who come over to escape for a better a life is necessary – intolerance for criminals is mandatory.

Illegal immigration today produces a political and social firestorm – a polarization of opinion that can be traced to the dangerous difficulties that face people across our nation – and none more so than those at the front line of the immigration question, like those along the U.S.-Mexico border.

And how these unauthorized immigrants arrive at their destination can be a very different story…

Welcome to Cattle Ranching on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Russell is a fourth-generation rancher, grazing sometimes more than a thousand head of cattle in the rugged country of southwestern New Mexico.  His big spread abuts the U.S.-Mexico border for eight miles, marked by sparse vegetation and sparser water, protected and defined in long stretches by crude vehicle barriers or a single strand of barbed-wire fencing. The nearest city of any size is 40 miles away.  Everything here is big, and the scale of things immense.

Russell and Brandy work hard to make a go of it in the demanding world of cattle production. It’s hard work keeping tabs on the cattle 24/7, protecting them from predators, and doing it all in a way that preserves the delicate balance that protects the natural resources they and their predecessors have relied upon for more than a century. It’s a rugged life made even more so by dealing with desperate immigrants passing through.

Russell patiently paints a scary picture of how illegal immigration has changed not just the way he manages his cattle operations, but maybe more concerning, how it has changed the way he and his family go about living their day-to-day lives.

He says the core of the problem is where his ranch lies. For miles and miles of that border, on either side of his ranch, there is no substantive barrier – other than that strand of barbed wire – standing guard against those intent upon entering the U.S. There is nothing to stop individuals from coming across their land. Increasingly, these newcomers come in waves of all-terrain vehicles, rampaging across the countryside in a headlong dash for that elusive better life somewhere north of the so-called border.

“It can be individuals, or groups being taken in by somebody with a van or a panel truck,” Russell explains.  “Sometimes they may be drug runners, or smugglers bringing cheap labor into the country for whoever wants them, or just people grasping for something better, no matter the cost or the danger for them or others.”

There’s no one way to define who is coming over. And that may be the point. “There’s just more and more of them all the time,” Russell observes.

“I have no problem with people seeking a better life,” he says in the laconic western drawl. “We all want better lives for our families. I get that. But what I don’t like is what I see happening to my life because we won’t face up to the big issue – which is building a workable immigration system. I’m tired of waiting. And frustrated.”

When a western cattle rancher says he is frustrated, it’s time to pay attention.

A Dangerous Way of Life

The increasing number of undocumented immigrants entering Russell’s ranch carries with it a lot of collateral damage.

“Well, it starts with my fences being taken down,” he says. “I get a call at 2am from Border Patrol telling me somebody has run down my fence. I have to get up and fix the fence all over again. And again, and again.”

But what animates Russell is something far more frightening than the repair expense, or the inconvenience, or more hard work. As a rancher, he’s used to that.

“It bothers me when I find one of my line sheds has been broken into for shelter,” he says. “Or even burned down to keep warm.”

Or consider the situation faced by Russell’s father and uncle during one of the worst cycles of immigrant flow into his farm. “My father and uncle’s pickup was stolen at gunpoint while they were checking on the chili pepper harvest. There were young men blending into the chili picking crew, but apparently, they were actually guarding a marijuana field in Mexico that had been raided. They needed a pickup to escape, but got it stuck in the mud just before they could cross into Mexico. The young men left the truck…some fled to a village just across the border and engaged in a gunfight with Mexican law enforcement, while a few others ran back into the U.S.”

“I’m not happy about it,” Russell adds. “But there are places on my property that I won’t let my children go – at least not without me or Brandy being with them, and without at least one of us being armed. The local police can’t be of much help. They just can’t cover all this ground.”

Asking if these kinds of episodes are a frequent problem or an occasional annoyance, Russell responds, “it goes in waves. We’ll go a while with only an occasional sighting, or even nothing happening. We’ll have a single drive-through, then have three or four for about a month.  Then they’ll move on to a new spot, the point of least resistance. They’ll move to where the Border Patrol isn’t…to where they aren’t focusing their limited resources.”

Trying to get state and other federal authorities to take action hasn’t produced much to help alleviate the problem.

“We contact all the right people, and sometimes they will send somebody out from the Border office to walk around and look at things,” Russell says, choosing his words carefully. “They don’t see anything or anybody of interest at that moment. So they sorta shrug it off and go back.”

What they don’t seem to appreciate, he adds, is that the problem is like water seeking the lowest level. “There are hundreds of miles of border” in this region, he says, including lots with nothing more than the wire fences. “When the flow of illegal immigrants builds up in one spot, Border Patrol might send out what resources they have available to help. But the runners always seem to sense when that is happening, and they just shift to another weak point and make that their way in. Then the whole process repeats itself somewhere else.”

It’s not that Border Patrol doesn’t want to try to help us, he adds. “It’s just that they don’t have enough people or resources of technology to cover it all.”  Russell knows; he used to be a Border Patrol agent, covering 67 miles of territory.

What Can be Done for Farmers at the Border?

“We need to secure our border with a barrier, put Border Patrol agents in place with the proper technology, and have immigration reform for those who want to be good productive citizens of our country.” 

Russell adds, “Long-term is the real reform of immigration policy. Let’s find a way to let people in the right way so it works for them – and not the criminals.”

As it turns out, things are moving in Russell’s favor. As we prepared this post, significant progress has been made on their 3-mile stretch of unprotected border. Russell was eager to report that things have changed drastically on his ranch and, “for a change, it’s better”.  Wall construction has started on his family’s ranch and, furthermore, Russell received a status report that a contract has been in place to fortify the 3-mile stretch of barbed wire they feared was going to be left as a gap. This gives his family much relief in knowing that their property will no longer be a funneling point.

Communication here is key, as Russell had to elevate his needs to the Administration for this additional coverage. Though it’s not an answer to a much larger, pressing issue, it’s a step in a better direction that protects the Johnsons’ ranch while helping to direct flow through the proper channels.

Dairy: An Industry in Quiet Turmoil

Dairy farmers know the story all too well. Long before COVID-19 raised its ugly head across the globe, the industry was already in the throes of major structural changes and fundamental economic shifts. Recently, Dean Foods and Borden Dairy filed for bankruptcy within months of each other.

Industry consolidation

In 1999, the U.S. had over 87,000 dairy farms spread across the country. In 2019, that number more than halved to 34,000. Over the same period, the volume of milk produced per cow has increased 32%. Surprisingly, the number of cows remains the same, hovering around 9 million.

Although smaller dairy farms with up to 30 cows still make up a larger portion of total farms in the U.S., in 2006, they produced only 1% of total dairy production. New technologies implemented by larger dairies dramatically increase production, but are just too expensive for the smaller dairies to adopt. This has prevented small dairy farms from increasing their volume, and thus, their margin. They needed to find a solution fast, and that solution was to consolidate.

So, why consolidate? Because it can mean much lowers costs. For operations of 2,000 or more cows, the small farm realizes a 12% savings in feed costs, 20% in operating costs, and 45% in overhead costs when consolidating with a larger dairy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But a larger number of cows does not always mean a higher profit. Increases in per-cow productivity is much more important to getting a better end result, and larger farms still have the advantage here. Increases in per-cow productivity are made possible by advances in animal nutrition, health and well-being, and technological improvements. These are more financially feasible for larger operations.

Global demand shifts

The challenges facing the dairy sector didn’t end with consolidation. Today, consumers drink or eat about 160 pounds of dairy per year – a decrease from the 195 pounds in 2010. Alternative “milks”, like almond, oat, and even banana, started taking over the shelves and diets of many consumers, significantly cutting dairy demand.

Meanwhile, competition to export milk intensified: New Zealand recently ranked first with $5.5 billion of milk exports, compared to the U.S.’s $1.6B, placing us in fifth place. Also, in many rural areas, the lack of labor plus the inability to adapt rapidly to costly new technologies paints a bleak picture for many dairy farmers. For producers, prices didn’t generate the profits they needed to survive, let alone thrive.

Members of the dairy industry have wrestled with these problems for years and yet we, the consumer, didn’t notice. We still saw grocery shelves stacked with butter and cheese, and food-services ready to serve whatever dairy product we needed, so how could we know what was going on behind the scenes?

Then came COVID-19…

It wasn’t until COVID-19 cut off a huge portion of the restaurant, school, and food-service markets that we really started to notice the changes. Dairy producers were left with a significant oversupply – by some industry estimates, as much as a 10% surplus. But how?

Imagine going to a restaurant for dinner. Maybe you start with some fresh bread and it comes with butter. Your salad is topped with feta cheese. The salmon you ordered was cooked in a pan of butter and has parmesan sprinkled on top. The side order of a baked potato comes with butter and sour cream, and you order a nice slice of cheesecake topped with whipped cream for dessert. Every course in that meal included dairy in at least one way.

This is where the problem lies. These food-service markets purchase as much as half of the cheese and butter produced by the industry and school milk makes up 7% of all liquid milk sales. Without them, we see a huge decrease in demand.

The media reports a 70% overall drop in cheese sales, which – you can see in the chart – equates to a lot of milk left to waste. Leading producers of cheese, like Wisconsin, California, and New York, are facing a potentially worse supply-demand imbalance. Not coincidentally, Wisconsin and New York are where reports of milk being dumped on the ground seem most common. In April, as much as 7% of milk production wound up being poured out, rather than being shipped to processors.

Dairy processors, such as Nestle USA and the Dairy Farmers of America Inc, have rushed to adapt to the surge in demand, or ‘panic-buying’ as we’ve seen it called, for fluid milk that has emerged from the pandemic. In the first two weeks of the pandemic, fluid milk sales jumped by 55% and still remains about 35% higher than usual.

“As panic buying reached its peak, we shifted production to focus on products most in demand – whole and 2% milk for retail business – to maximize our output efficiency,” said Anne Divjak, Vice President of Government Relations and External Communications for Dean Foods. “Demand has since normalized, and we are back to normal production runs but still seeing significant declines in school milk and food-service business.”

So…why the empty dairy shelves?

If there is such a large decrease in demand and milk is being dumped, why are we still seeing empty dairy cases at the grocery store?

There’s another problem, and that lies at the retail level. There is simply not enough storage space needed to accommodate large amounts of a product to keep the shelves full, especially one that quickly goes sour like fluid milk.

This is why so many of us were perplexed by the sight of empty dairy cases we saw at our grocery store and the subsequent reports of dairy producers dumping milk on the ground. Little did we know it was because grocery stores couldn’t rely on the next link in the supply chain to have the resources needed to adapt to such a profound shift in demand “pull.”

On top of that, distributors are also overwhelmed with the endless delivering. “We’re waiting for the next truck to come in,” became a common phrase among grocers and retail workers. The pandemic has caused a shift to the entire supply chain that can’t be fixed overnight.

As you can see, there isn’t a shortage of dairy products. Our delivery and retailing systems simply need some time to adjust to the massive changes in the system.

What’s the dairy industry to do?

In the short-term, the industry must work hard to accommodate the changed demand picture. It must focus on supplying the products customers want most. It must step up efforts to augment the traditional retail sales channels with more direct sales, like direct-to-consumer opportunities, and donations to food banks and community food programs.

Our food system is nothing if not adaptive, and many dairy operators are already hard at work seeking new ways to deal with problems made so visible by COVID-19. In upstate New York, the Dairy Farmers of America bought $15,000 worth of milk to donate. This allowed dairy farmers in Tioga County to give away their milk to nearby residents to avoid dumping. Over 800 families were able to pick up free milk right from their local dairy farm.

Similarly, in Syracuse, NY, the Dairy Farmers of America hosted a “milk drive-thru,” where they gave away over 8,000 gallons of local milk to low-income families, rather than disposing of their products.

The new direct-to-consumer initiative is ground-breaking for many reasons. First, it begins building new and important channels between the producer and consumer, while also allowing the food distribution and retail sector time to adjust to the new system.

Adapting to these direct-to-consumer channels also preserves and enhances the local farmer as an essential component of the food system. Food doesn’t grow on grocery shelves… it comes from men and women who actually produce the food for us. Increased local sales and more interaction between farmers and consumers could emerge as one of the few benefits from the COVID-19 experience, and the new farmer-consumer relationship may last well beyond.

Although these efforts won’t fix the supply-demand problem completely, every initiative is crucial to its survival.

What can we do as dairy consumers?

We can do our part by looking beyond the traditional sources of supply. We can be patient as the industry adapts to a brave new world of feeding people. And, we can avoid panic-buying, which only exacerbates the supply-demand misalignment. Lastly, let’s look for opportunities to support local producers at farmer’s markets and by buying directly from responsible and reliable local producers.

And, in conjunction with getting your 5-7 servings of fruits and veggies per day, perhaps occasionally treat your family to something special by ordering in. “We have to focus on increasing demand for dairy, however we can,” explains Scott Higgins, President and CEO of the American Dairy Association, Mideast. “So, maybe order a couple of pizzas for home delivery, too. Only with double cheese.” 😉

Why produce aisles look so barren right now…

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to have Richard Owen contribute his knowledge and expertise to our site. Richard is Vice President at the Produce Marketing Association, where he has worked since 2009. Richard’s career includes serving as Director of Agricultural Affairs at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative where his portfolio included Russia, Eastern Europe, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Israel. Richard also served as head of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, Montana Grain Growers Association, and National Association of Wheat Growers Foundation.

The Dirt

Many of us see the lack of fresh fruits and veggies in some of our supermarkets, but we hear on the news about produce wasting away in the fields. How is this happening? And will it get better?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, you may have gone into your local grocery store and noticed that the full range of fresh produce you’re accustomed to seeing is no longer available. It could be limited supplies of some apple varieties, only one type of lettuce, or no table grapes. What you are experiencing is the disruption of a very complicated supply chain that brings a highly perishable agricultural product from all corners of the world to your local supermarket. All made much more challenging by the multi-faceted complications of COVID-19.

The issue is made more challenging when you consider that in 2018, Americans spent $678 billion on food from full-service and fast-food restaurants, compared to the roughly $628 billion spent at grocery stores, according to USDA. Furthermore, Politico reports that about 40% of fresh produce grown in the country goes to food service, and the remainder to retail.

So in reality, you have two unique supply chains: one serving retail, and one serving the food service sector.

The Produce Supply Chain

According to Nielsen, U.S. fresh produce sales at the retail level was $61 billion in 2018. The product, whether it’s fruit or vegetable, originates on a farm. That farm could be in the U.S, Mexico, Canada or another country in the world. Starting almost at the time of harvest, if not before, the product is picked and, in some cases, grown with the end destination in mind.

Take a banana for example. If it’s going straight from the farm to a restaurant, it will be picked close to ripeness. If it’s going to the grocery store, it will be picked well before ripeness so it has a chance to ripen in the home. Even the container size is different. If it’s going to a food-service distributor like Sysco, it will go in a bulk container without specialized packaging. Broccoli is a good example where it will be bagged for a restaurant and just loose for the consumer in a grocery store.

Or, for instance, the frozen blueberries used in Wyman’s brand of products are bred to be hardier to last through the freezer period. On the other side, you have a different variety of blueberries from Driscoll’s that are made to last in the clamshell packages you find at the market.

Distribution along the Chain

For retail, it’s often branded along the way, whether that be a prominent name familiar to many consumers, or a retail store brand. Retailers often have their own specs for size and quality of certain produce items. For example, Walmart might even have a different grade for different markets based on demographics. As a side note, a system for tracing the product through the supply chain for food safety purposes is similar whether it’s for retail or food service.

Large brands, such as Driscoll’s or Sunkist, typically have contracts to supply retailers and major food-service distributors with their products. They assure product supply by either operating their own farms, but often have contracts with many growers to produce and deliver specified products directly to the major brands. The specs typically include the variety and quantity to be grown, time frame for delivery, and compliance with food safety and specific Good Agricultural Practices.

Mid-size, smaller, and independent growers may sell to multiple distributors, or even directly to retailers. Local retail markets are especially important when produce is in-season. For example, locally grown tomatoes, blueberries and peaches are delivered to retailers less than 100 miles away, as is the case with Heinen’s grocery stores in the Midwest. Also, seasonally, an important outlet for produce are local farmers markets.

How has COVID-19 Impacted Produce?

The impact of COVID-19 on the procurement process is manageable. Most relationships for purchasing are grounded in contracts, along with the need to communicate by phone and e-mail, something that can easily be done from a home office or other alternative.

But a bigger challenge is the highly perishable nature of fresh produce. When a product, say tomatoes, are ripe in the field, they need to be harvested within a short window of several days. If the retailer or food-service distributor is not able to take delivery, you can’t just put the crop on hold and pick it up in a week.

The product needs to be harvested, or the entire crop will deteriorate.

It then carries over into the planting window for the next crop going on the same piece of ground.

Labor for harvesting the crop is also carefully timed to match the predicted ripening and picking date. If a crop is delayed for harvesting due processing delays or closures, the crew may already be scheduled to move to the next crop or farm.

Transportation plays a huge role in the fresh produce supply chain. In the United States, most fresh produce moves by truck. The most perishable of products, like raspberries, can move by air if the market demands it and the customer is willing to pay for it.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, trucks were in tight supply and freight prices were elevated as many industries competed for a limited number of trucks in the system. Most fresh produce requires refrigerated trailers to travel longer distances, which are always in demand. The supply and demand of trucks are now in more equilibrium as the supply shifts have become more transparent.

Directing Supply to Those in Need

The government also regularly procures fresh produce for military institutions, schools, universities, and aid agencies. With the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in mid-April, the government will play an even larger role by providing $100 million per month to fund produce distributors and growers to deliver directly to food banks, food pantries, churches, and non-profit organizations serving citizens in need.

The purpose is to provide an alternative way of getting food directly from the field to the neediest at this time of lost jobs, furloughs and disrupted economies. This is a completely new venture for the U.S. government, and everyone will be watching closely to see if this can take some pressure off the current supply chain.

And speaking of food banks, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented demand on food donation agencies. Reports of a 70-100% increase in the number of food bank customers are common in almost all regions of the country. But many food banks have no or limited ability, if any, to store perishable fresh produce in refrigerated storage for ongoing distribution.

And food banks are now operating with fewer volunteers due to social distancing requirements intended to prevent further spread of the coronoavirus. So, this combination of lack of storage and staffing means that not all produce that is left in the field can make its way to food banks or related distribution routes. The industry has been stepping up and providing refrigerated trucks for use at food banks where possible.

Will the Waste Continue?

So, all this brings us back to a hard truth. The distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables is a complicated endeavor, made even more difficult by the many constraints added by the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are some incidences of produce going to waste in the field, these will only be temporary as the supply chain adjusts to whatever this ‘new normal’ turns out to be, similar to what the meat industry is experiencing, as well.

But our part in helping the produce industry during this time is by eating your 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Not only does this help the industry to better find its supply-demand equilibrium, but it’s unquestionably good for us, as well. Strengthening our immune systems with healthy, nutrient-dense foods is more important now as it’s ever been. Just make sure not to fall into the panic-buying trap so there’s enough for everyone in your community.

The Meat Industry & Shifting Consumer Behavior

Remember when we all went grocery shopping in the beginning of COVID?  The grocery store shelves were practically empty. I couldn’t find black beans or even plain pasta. The milk and meat sections were bare. We certainly do not want that to happen again – going to the grocery store is stressful enough given our masks, sanitizers, and maneuvering our carts to a socially acceptable distance. Let’s not allow the news about meat plant closings force us back into ‘panic buying’ habits.

Rest assured, there is enough meat to go around…if we shop responsibly. Here’s why.

Meat Update

Due to COVID-19 among facility workers, it’s no surprise that things look a little grim. As of the week of May 4th, about 40% of hogs, 35% of beef, and 12% of chickens were not processed, which is where livestock meat is separated into cuts, and then packaged for distribution to grocery stores and food service operators.

The country’s largest meat suppliers, JBS, Hormel, Tyson, Conagra, Cargill, and Smithfield, have all suspended or shut down operations at one or more of their meat processing plants across the country. We shouldn’t worry too much because when some close, others open. All of the meat plants will not shut down at the same time.

President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act that designates chicken, pork, and beef plants as critical infrastructure under the law. This also ensures that workers are first in line for PPE (personal protective equipment). In addition, the CDC wrote general requirements for meat processing plants to operate under COVID-19.

New Meat Protocols

At the end of the day, every single meat company is working hard to keep their employees safe with appropriate distancing and PPE.

“It is a challenge and it will continue to be a challenge. We are doing a lot of investments, changing cafeterias, food separation, changing shifts, we are investing in our team members, we put a bonus out there to retain the team members and keep them working. But it is a challenge, and we will continue to face this challenge as long as this crisis continues.”

– JBS earnings call, March 26, 2020

Right now, meat facilities are taking the highest precautions. They have put up plastic barriers, given all employees enough masks, increased the cleaning and social distancing in common areas like the lunchroom and locker rooms, kept high-risk population at home, and are taking employee temperatures before they enter the facilities and during their breaks.

Smithfield Foods reported in their recent press release, “media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat out wrong. There is no such division. The company and its team members all want the same thing: to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply.” (image to the right: Plastic shields at Smithfield Foods, the largest global pork producer)

Employers are also increasing the worker’s pay. For instance, Tyson Foods is providing $120 million in bonuses and increasing health benefits for frontline workers, and Cargill added $2.00 an hour to all jobs.

How does the meat supply work?

Our food system is a resilient, finely-tuned machine. It operates more like the SpaceX shuttle by Elon Musk than a Wilbur and Orville Wright bi-plane. On average, Americans eat 227 pounds of meat every year, or  about 9 ounces a day. Before COVID, we could plan on 120,000 cattle, 400,000 pigs, and 25 million chickens getting processed every single day to meet U.S. and export demand.  It is a tremendous system. Think about how much planning goes into creating a consistent and safe food supply for grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, schools, institutions, and fast-food franchises all across the country.

If you ate a juicy hamburger this past Saturday, the calf was conceived in July 2017 and born in April 2018. It then took approximately two years from the time it was born until it came to your plate.

The hog supplying the bacon and sausage you recently had for breakfast was bred last July and took about six months to grow.

Conversely, the chicken you ate on Sunday night was a new egg only eight weeks ago – and took six weeks to grow from an egg to a chicken. Because of these timetables, you cannot just turn on or off the spigot with cattle and pork the same way you can with poultry.

Each category has a unique supply chain that brings specific challenges to bear as we face COVID-19. There are hundreds of thousands of farmers, growers, and operators that grow the animal or bird. When the system operates smoothly, all the animals go from the processor to the food distributors and then directly to the grocery store and food service. But when disruptions like COVID hit the chain, challenges arise that our food supply has to address. In the case of meats, the bottleneck occurs at the processing level.

Slower processing: The effect on poultry, pork, and beef

When meat processing volume slows down, it creates an excess of animals on the front end.

Poultry. Chickens take such a short period of time to grow that farmers can hold off on hatching the eggs to let the chicken supply flow through before starting the next flock. But then you might end up with too many eggs.  Many breeders have euthanized some of their chickens already.

Pork. Pigs are a different story. Most of the pig farms breed and grow their pigs for the entire six months. A pig cannot just be put out to pasture to wait it out. A pig takes up room – a lot of it – and the next crop of piglets is being born every day. The only option here is for the farmer to begin euthanizing either their piglets or the mature hogs.

Beef. The beef industry can slow down the supply as the cows can remain in a holding pattern on the range, in the feedlot, or on the ranch. The feedlots can reduce the cows’ feed enough to keep them from gaining weight.

There is no doubt about it: farmers and ranchers are hurt by having to hold on and feed them – or worse – in the case of pork – euthanize them.  Until we are clear of COVID-19, the USDA announced a $19 billion relief program to help farmers, ranchers, and distributors who have been adversely affected.

But if the supply is slowing, won’t we run out of meat?

With production slowing from bottlenecking at the processing level, consumers are starting to fear that a decrease in meat production will mean a decrease in availability of meats at their grocery stores.  However, the economy is leveling out meat demand. With the U.S. GDP falling almost 5% in the first quarter, it is estimated that more drops are on the horizon, with a 30% anticipated decrease by the end of the second quarter.

The stock market is providing a very real and very scary read on the health of various industries. In the last few weeks, the S&P has seen price drops of between 8 to 25% due to decreased earnings. And at least 30 million American are applying for unemployment.

Why is this important?  As many industries get hit hard and workers get furloughed or let go, many of us are forced to adjust our spending to meet a tighter budget. Generally, when incomes drop, one of the first food-related budget cuts are expensive red meats; the second is pork, and finally chicken. For instance, we might switch from a filet to ground beef. Or, we might stretch meat to last longer by making casseroles and soups. This is why the USDA is forecasting an increase in chicken production, but a decline in beef and pork.

Prices will be higher because of the disrupted supply. At the week ending on May 1, the 85% lean hamburger you ate on Saturday night cost $3.74 a pound compared to $3.59 last year. But a much more expensive filet mignon at $12.23 a pound has experienced an 18% price increase from just last week.  Conversely, the bacon you had for breakfast is 10% cheaper than last week. But the pork tenderloin you might buy for dinner is 5% higher than the week before, and 14% higher than last year. Yet your wallet is relatively safe with the chicken breast for Sunday night’s dinner, as the value pack dropped by 5% since last week.

Retail versus Food Service

The money we spend on food in this country is allocated almost 50/50 between direct-to-consumer retailers, like the grocery store, and to food service operators, restaurants, cafeterias, and the like. Today, the food once headed to your favorite corner bistro is being rerouted to your neighborhood Stop & Shop. Yes, thankfully, our food system is flexible, and set up in a way that enables it to change allocations from food service to retail relatively quickly.

JBS indicated their flexibility:

“Very few lines, in our case, cannot be immediately used for retail. Maybe some of the lines in bacon is specific for food service, in that specific you don’t have the proper package, but it’s very small. I would say irrelevant. So in our case, we can change pretty much 100% what was done before for food service. If demand reduces in 50% for food service, we can immediately transform that to retail with very, very little impact.”

It’s unlikely that the same volume of meat purchased at food service will entirely be picked up by demand at the grocery store. America has approximately 660,000 restaurants closed or operating at limited capacity right now. Just at the end of March, the restaurant industry lost approximately $25 billion in sales and 9 million people lost their jobs. Even the top-two fast food enterprises, McDonald’s and Starbucks, are seeing a significant impact on their revenue.

Should we run and fill our freezers?

There will still be enough meat in the grocery stores for you to meet your protein requirements of 80 – 100 grams a day, depending on your activity level. Your favorite cuts might not be available, and some might be more expensive, but there will be enough. To help manage this, stores like Kroger’s and Costco are encouraging customers to limit meat purchases to 3 to 5 items per visit.

We have enough meat moving through the system and the meat supply chain is resilient and adaptable. If you run to fill your freezer for the next months’ worth of meals, you will just be putting more pressure on the grocery stores to stock their shelves and more pressure on the meat lines to increase their supply. And within your community, you’re also denying your fellow neighbor their selection.

Whether our meat turns into a toilet paper crisis – that is up to each one of us.

Where is our Food?!

First, we walked into supermarkets and found empty shelves. The milk section is cleaned out, but we read about dairy farmers pouring milk into the ground. It was hard to find fresh fruits and veggies, like bananas and potatoes, yet we would see breathless television reporters showing us fields of produce being plowed under. And most recently, we’ve been reading about more and more meat processing plants shutting down.

The Chairman of Tyson Foods told us the meat supply chain is broken. Dire warnings of upcoming shortages of meat for supermarket shelves pop up almost every day, it seems. Experts tell us farmers, ranchers, and others across the food chain are facing losses measured in the billions of dollars.

What’s going on here? How can the world’s most advanced and productive food system have come to this situation?

Is our food system really broken?

No, it is not broken. Our food supply chain is resilient and innovative, but right now, it is being forced to make some substantial adjustments to a very changed world, and it will take some time to work out all the necessary modifications.

A Dramatic Change in Production

The heart of the matter is basic economics: the global pandemic has fundamentally changed how we buy our food. The whole system functions much like a carefully choreographed and extraordinarily complex ballet to ensure that we get the products we want at prices we can afford.

The path from dirt to dinner includes farmers, ranchers, transportation to food processors, then consumer product companies, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hotels, and much more – all interconnected and dedicated to providing a steady stream of the food we eat every day. Much of the turmoil we see in our food system today reflects a massive disruption to the ballet’s staging.

The pandemic has skewed demand in all links of the food supply chain to make the current system look more like a square dance with tractors than Swan Lake.

Our Food Supply Channels

We sometimes forget; over the past 20 years or so, we have significantly increased the amount of food we eat outside our homes. We have two basic types of “demand” for food – one focused on the retail market, the other on the food service sector. Before the pandemic, we consume about half of our food dollars for at-home meals and the other half in restaurants, fast food outlets, specialty shops, and a burgeoning array of food providers.

The food service industry is defined as eating at restaurants ordering take-out, dining at hotels, schools, hospitals, corporate offices, the military…just to name a few. Our carefully choreographed food chain is structured to serve those two segments.

Our food system has developed the unique tools and processes needed for both at-home and food service channels. Each channel demands somewhat different tools and processes. And each reflects a massive investment in channel-specific machinery and equipment, and careful development of processing, transportation and storage systems.

The pandemic devastated the food service channel of the demand picture – not by eliminating the need for food, but by shifting more and more of it back to in-home dining.

Adjusting to a “New Normal”

When lockdowns and social distancing effectively closed the food service industry’s ability to provide dine-in eating and curtailed school lunches, hotels, and other mass feeding programs, we lost a significant portion of the “demand-pull” these food operations create. As important and valuable as home food delivery, food banks, and other charitable outlets for food are, they just can’t make up for the loss of demand from this critical food-service side of the system.

In some situations, operations didn’t have the storage capacity, processing and handling equipment, the right packaging, the right distribution systems, or some other element of the system important to handling the changed demand pattern. In some cases, the food supply simply backed up, as is the case when meat facilities began slowing down.

The disruptions to a finely-tuned system of just-in-time delivery left some producers and other parts of the food supply chain with nowhere to go. At the same time, all workers need to be kept safe, with social distancing and necessary protective equipment.

The carefully executed ballet for our pre-COVID world needed some modification and adjustments in response to our new demand patterns. But we don’t need a whole new ballet – we just need to make changes to our system and take advantage of the existing flexibility.

Americans in the food production industry are improving the food supply chain every day to make sure it gets to all of us. How much of that change remains in place in a post-COVID world is yet to be determined. But if history is any guide, the system will adapt to whatever we as consumers want.

At D2D, we are going into depth with the meat, dairy, and produce sectors to help clarify some of the misperceptions from the media and provide some context to our current food supply chain and what changes are taking place to make sure we have the food we want and in plentiful supply.

This week, we’re taking a look at how the meat industry is working to meet demand…as long as it doesn’t become fashionable to hoard it like we did with toilet paper…

A Vitamin D-lemma: Sunscreen vs. Healthy Sun Exposure

vitamin d

Vitamin D is an especially important nutrient right now, as we all have a heightened awareness about our immune health to battle COVID-19. In addition to aiding in cellular function, bone growth & strengthening, Vitamin D is also a crucial player in fortifying our immune system.

Moreover, according to a new study out of Northwestern University, researchers found a strong correlation to Vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19 mortality. According to data derived from 10 different countries, “the researchers noted that patients from countries with high COVID-19 mortality rates, such as Italy, Spain and the UK, had lower levels of vitamin D compared to patients in countries that were not as severely affected.”

The Benefits of Vitamin D

Did you know our kidneys can produce 90% of our daily dose of vitamin D? Our bodies are able to process vitamin D through receptors in our skin cells. We are able to process up to 90% of that vitamin D we need through this exposure to the sun. However, there are limited foods that are high naturally in vitamin D to make up that 10% that we are unable to process through the sun. Most dermatologist and endocrinologist alike will recommend vitamin D be taken as a supplement to ensure that your daily dose is reached.

Vitamin D controls our blood calcium levels and helps strengthen our immune system. It promotes healthy bones, muscle function, cardiovascular function, brain development, and support for our respiratory system. Despite its name, vitamin D is actually a prohormone, not a vitamin. When the body receives vitamin D, it turns it into a hormone, sometimes called “activated vitamin D”, or “calcitriol”.

Source: www.globalhealingcenter.com

Though vitamin D is also found in several foods, the prohormone is most readily available through direct exposure to UV rays. Through a series of chemical processes, the skin turns sunlight into cholecalciferol, which the liver then converts into vitamin D. In short, we can synthesize vitamin D through sunlight hitting our skin, making us more like plants than we thought!

Surprisingly, vitamin D can actually serve as a protectant for the skin from UVB rays. As Dr. Gominak explains, based on her extensive studies:

“Vitamin D…goes into the cells nucleus to repair the DNA damage caused by the UVB light, thus preventing skin cancer. This means that there was already a natural process that protected us from skin cancer caused by sun exposure.”

So I can get my recommended dosage of vitamin D from the sun in a healthy way that can actually benefit my body? Sounds like I’ll be getting a tan this summer!

Don’t Forget the Sunscreen

But about that tan…what about the motherly warnings against sunspots, wrinkly skin and increased chances of cancer development? Not to worry, I am fully equipped to combat those with my army of sunscreen. I have my convenient spray for quick re-applications, my face stick to make sure my nose and ears are fully concealed, and my lightly-tinted body lotion to give me that extra glow. Very responsible of me…my mom would be proud! Or would she?

A study conducted in January 2020 on the effects of sunscreen application on plasma concentration of sunscreen active ingredients revealed similar findings to last years’ research. The results showed that four active ingredients in sunscreen: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, and octisalate, are all systemically absorbed into the bloodstream when applied to skin. While this study still lacks sufficient evidence to prove true health implications, it has surpassed the plasma concentration threshold set by the FDA, which was the marker for the need for further safety studies.

In short, this study’s findings will pave the way for future clinical studies that will help make more concrete results impactful at a formal, regulatory level. Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, states that: “this finding calls for further testing to determine the safety and efficacy of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients.” Dr. Woodcock continues to stress that, “whether this is dangerous is still not known.”

The FDA addressed the lack of regulatory safety testing and efficacy for the first time in sunscreens in 2019. Until then, they had not tested sunscreens for how they absorb into the bloodstream, as the formulations were designed to sit on the skin as a topical shield from UVB rays. This 2020 study will surely lead to more clinical studies, and hopefully, more significant findings that will help consumers decide on what sunscreen is best for them, and help our regulatory bodies enforce safety precautions.

Studies published in The Journal of the American Medical Association evaluated the systemic absorption of active ingredients in four commercially available sunscreens. In this pilot study, all four active ingredients tested were absorbed into the bloodstream!  And while not all ingredients absorbed through the skin are hazardous and our bodies are able to process most toxicants, the study calls for further research and testing to determine the safety of ingredients for repeated use.

While the testing continues, the FDA has proposed a rule in 2019, that requires sunscreens to be regulated in the same way as drugs. This was put in place to bring all over-the-counter sunscreens up to date with the latest scientific standards, and ensure they are generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE). While testing and approvals are still in the works as of May 2020, here is a guide to help you navigate what is safe for use!

Here are the proposed regulations outside of just ingredient-testing for sunscreens — this includes SPF levels, label requirements and dosage recommendations.

Which Sunscreens are Best?

So what sunscreens can I use, and what should I look for? Two active ingredients already considered GRASE are zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide; if you see these on your label, you can rest assured you are in the clear. On the other hand, PABA and trolamine salicylate have been deemed unsafe for use, so avoid sunscreens containing these ingredients. Most other chemicals are still under investigation by the FDA and have insufficient data to make a conclusive safety determination, here is a chart that illustrates how to best read your sunscreen label:

If you’re curious about other ways to protect your skin from sun damage and pollutants, check out our post on Skin: Your Body’s Largest Organ here. And if you’re wondering more about vitamin D and its effect on our health, stay tuned for more from Dirt to Dinner on this topic!