A lack of access to COVID-19 personal protective equipment and an adequate labor force are among the greatest needs of Central Coast farmers and growers, according to a panel of agriculture industry representatives.
But expanding assistance to specialty growers, more COVID-19 testing, tracing and treatment and a loosening of pandemic-related restrictions are also on the wish list given to 24th Congressional District Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, in a virtual forum Friday.
The online event was described as an opportunity for panelists to explain what federal programs are helping Central Coast agriculture and what more is needed as the industry faces issues ranging from changing weather patterns and wildfires to trade issues and the pandemic.
Navdeep Dhillon, Farm Program chief for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in California, provided an overview of federal programs and how to apply before panelists responded to questions posed by Carbajal.
Several panelists said having access to an adequate labor force is a major concern.
“Our biggest issue … around labor is the lack of it,” said Jeff Newton of the Santa Barbara Vintners and founder of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, noting the labor force is shrinking and aging and Hispanic workers are discouraged by President Trump’s “rage over Mexicans.”
“In general, we need a more comprehensive guest worker program,” Newton said. “If we don’t [get that], we’ll begin to lose agriculture in California. A lot of agriculture is beginning to shift into Mexico, and it will continue to shift into Mexico.”
Another issue, panelists said, is a lack of access to N-95 face masks for COVID-19 protection at reasonable prices.
“We don’t have enough, and the ones we can get are very expensive,” said Brent Burchett, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. “Supplies here on the Central Coast are about depleted.”
Teri Bontrager, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, agreed.
“They are very cost-prohibitive,” Bontrager said, adding the Farm Bureau has been getting a lot of calls from small farmers for help in obtaining masks.
“I think the issue is, in some cases you just can’t buy them,” added Claire Wineman, president of the Grower Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. “They’re not on the shelves.”
The panel’s wine experts said some sectors of the Central Coast wine industry have fared better than others during efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which they said will change the wine industry permanently.
Joel Peterson, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said the small family wineries that already had strong club membership and online sales have fared much better than big wineries that relied on festivals and concerts.
“Virtual tastings have become the norm here. I think they’re here to stay,” he said, adding online sales in July grew 2½ times from July last year and now account for 33% of sales.
But Burchett said the outlook isn’t good for wine grape growers, who need to be included in the next government assistance package.
“There’s been a $1.5 billion decline in the value of grapes,” Burchett said. “That will be devastating to our wine region here.”
Peterson agreed there is a glut of wine grapes in California: “There’s going to be a lot of unharvested grapes, as well.”
Panelists said expansion of the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to include more specialty crops has helped, but it needs to be extended even further.
“It really provided a lifeline to some of our members,” Wineman said, but added, “We have members whose losses are well beyond the program payments.”
Bontrager said small growers who sell through farmers markets feel left out and frustrated, and Burchett said those who grow certified organic crops aren’t being paid based on the higher prices their products normally command.
He also brought up another need that he said hasn’t been mentioned much — broadband access in rural areas to provide students with remote education.
“There are parts of San Luis Obispo County where students can’t participate with the rest of their classmates,” he said. “Our kids deserve to be on an equal paying field with our urban students.”
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