Terry Brebes - Growing concern: The realities of wasted produce
News stories and photos depict the difficult circumstances that many growers face in midst of COVID-19: fields full of fruits and vegetables that will never make it to market. What factors actually contribute to the loss of so much fresh, safe food? Terry Brebes, crop advisor for Simplot Grower Solutions, shares the realities of why it has been challenging for producers to sell or even donate their crops, and what it all means for the food supply.
This episode is part of a special AgFuture series on the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain. Join us to hear how those on the frontlines of the global pandemic are working to overcome adversity and feed the world.
Hosted by Michelle Michael
As lead video producer at Alltech, Michelle travels the globe for the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty™ documentary series. Michelle spent a decade as a video producer/reporter in Germany, reporting from military hotspots at the height of the war on terrorism. The National Press Photographer’s Association (NPAA) has twice recognized Michelle as their solo video journalist of the year.
Co-produced by Brandon Whitworth
As the senior media production specialist at Alltech, Brandon co-produces the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty™ documentary series. Brandon is a two-time Emmy Award winning television news photojournalist and three-time nominee. He has received several reginal awards from the National Press Photographers Association for excellence in visual storytelling.
The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael’s interview with Terry Brebes. Click below to hear the full audio.
Michelle: Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is Terry Brebes. Terry is a crop advisor for Simplot Grower Solutions based in the Guadalupe region in California. His day-to-day job is to advise growers on crop inputs and make recommendations to growers.
Terry, this pandemic is really testing our food supply chains around the globe. Americans are stuck at home. Lots of people around the world are stuck at home trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus. We live in some really strange times. People are hoarding items like toilet paper. Meanwhile, there's an abundance of leafy greens — in fact, so much that, where you are on the West Coast, growers are letting their crops die in the field, in some cases. That is unprecedented. What does the world look like through your eyes in California right now, and how is that different than it was before this pandemic?
Terry: Well, it's a scary thing. We have businesses shut down. We have people having to stay home. Like you said, we have growers disking crops. There's just no movement of produce at this time, right now.
Michelle: How tough is it? What does your world look like, and how is it different?
Terry: Well, it's different than — as far as my job goes, it's different where growers are cutting back on things they wouldn't cut back from (normally). They don't even worry about looking to disk it. It's just a tough time in agriculture.
Michelle: Let's talk about the future of food. In good times, normal times, the majority of lettuce and broccoli and such, they're actually sold to restaurants and schools, not necessarily to the supermarket. With the shutdown of those places, what's happening, Terry?
Terry: Well, the lettuce and broccoli and the stuff that goes to the restaurant is cut in more than half. It's down to 30% to 40%, and it's a direct outcome of the schools and restaurants and institutions being shut down. Nothing's going there. They're not buying anything, the restaurant owners. The kids aren't in school. As far as the restaurants go, their businesses themselves are 20% to 30% of what they used to be.
Michelle: Is that the case? Is half of it sold to restaurants, the other half sold to supermarkets? What is that breakdown?
Terry: I don't know what exactly the breakdown is. On the retail side, I don't know, but there are companies that do nothing but bag stuff that goes to restaurants and schools, and they're moving absolutely nothing.
Michelle: I want to talk about, maybe, some of the many things contributing to the situation that crop producers are facing. Let's just start with the basic nature of how the coronavirus spreads from person to person, through droplets from coughing and sneezing, and it's transferred on surfaces. Has the migrant workforce been impacted by COVID-19, and do you envision that being something of a problem in the future?
Terry: Well, as far as migrants, our workers are always here. There are certain programs, like the H-2A programs, where they can visit us and work here for so long. Some of those people that are first-time coming over — the borders are closed now for them, but we've always had a shortage of work right now. We've always had a shortage of work here in our industry, but just trying to keep the workers safe is an issue. They're doing all they can to do that, but as far as finding people to work, it's always been an issue, so as far as COVID-19 affecting that, not really.
Michelle: Broccoli, cauliflower, those things — most vegetables are harvested by hand. Are people afraid right now not just of working, but afraid that produce, at this time, is infected, and is that further hurting growers?
Terry: Well, it is, because the markets are up and there's just no demand. They're not shipping anything out, and it's a perishable item, and people are afraid of it. You walk into the produce department and there's plenty of produce on the shelf — and there's nobody in the produce department. People touch it. People sneeze on it. People cough on it, so they're not taking it, and it's affecting the grower dramatically.
Michelle: How much of an impact are we talking about, Terry? How much waste do you think is happening, where producers are being forced to just walk away from ripe vegetables?
Terry: The leafy greens are really taking the hit. There was a time here, a week ago or two weeks ago, between here and the Salinas Valley, (when) we were disking between 120 to 150 acres of lettuce a week.
Michelle: What does that look like now?
Terry: It's starting to sustain a little bit. We're starting to harvest just for the reason that the markets are picking up and there is a little bit more movement, so we're not wasting as much right now as we were a couple of weeks ago.
Michelle: In your mind, is this pandemic possibly going to mean the end for some growers? Can they maintain financially? Have you talked to any of them, and how are they holding up?
Terry: Well, it will, because banks are nervous. The growers are nervous. I talked to a grower the other day and they had to replace a well, and the pump company that did their work wanted to be paid up-front. Everybody is just uncertain about what's going to happen. A grower? They can't stop farming. They have to put everything out there, and they don't know what they're going to get out of it.
Michelle: Is that changing pricing? Is the pandemic driving pricing in a different direction?
Terry: Yeah, it dropped to — for example, cauliflower and broccoli, they were four bucks, and you have to break even at six bucks, but now, the price of everything is starting to climb, except leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, stuff like that. The prices are starting to climb (in some areas, but in that sector,) there's just no movement. You just can't move it.
Michelle: At the consumer level, should we be concerned at all that growers are — as they're walking away from their crops, should we worry that fresh produce soon might not be available in supermarkets?
Terry: No, I don't think so. A grower can always overproduce, which they usually do anyway. Like we talked about, there are certain commodities that aren't available like other commodities because we're walking by them in the field, but as far as fresh produce, I don't think we'll have a shortage of it.
Michelle: The impact — is it across the board, Terry, or is there a difference if you're a big grower versus if you're a smaller grower?
Terry: It's a difference in how long you are going to hang on. Bigger growers, they have more assets than smaller growers, so they can hang on longer than a grower that just survives on cash. Bigger growers have more assets, so the bank will deal with them a little better.
Michelle: I'm sure you've talked to smaller growers and larger growers during this time. What are the smaller growers saying right now? Are they afraid? Do they have fear? What is the biggest emotion that you get from them at this time?
Terry: They're all afraid. Like I said, they can't stop growing. It has to be business as usual, as much as they can. They have to put everything out there, and they just don't know what their return is going to be, so everybody is a little bit nervous, in that sense.
Michelle: Do you think, Terry, that this pandemic could potentially cause corporate farming to be the way of the future, if these smaller growers can't maintain financially?
Terry: Well, I think it's going this way and that way anyway; it just might push it that way a little faster. For example, if you've got a huge corporate grower, especially with all the regulations in California that say we need to implement this new food safety program this year and it's going to cost us $1 million, a corporate grower or a bigger grower just goes out and says, "Well, we're going to need 1,000 more acres to farm to pay for this," and so they'll go out and buy another 1,000 acres and farm, where the smaller guys just can't do that.
Michelle: Tell us more about what you see as the short- and the long-term implications of what's happening right now.
Terry: The short-term is they're really taking a hit now. You've got packing sheds that are working at 30% of capacity. They're leaving products in the field. And the long-term, I don't think anybody knows right now. Everybody can speculate that, of course, this thing is going to turn around at some time, but it's just when, and how far are we going to take it.
Michelle: Yeah, and certainly, everybody's trying to find their way right now. Terry, I'm wondering if you can add any perspective behind why a farmer, why a grower, can't simply harvest his or her fields and donate the produce somewhere? Why let it go to waste?
Terry: That's what's happening now. I think I sent Steve an article about (how) Gulf Coast Farms is actually donating a lot of their cauliflower to some of these kids that can't afford lunches. They can still go to certain schools and pick up lunches. People are starting to do that now, too, but a lot of it is perishable, too, so they have a hard time with that, but there's a lot more. Plus, they have to pay (for) the labor, and when they donate it, they get nothing for it; they take a loss on it. But it's happening a lot more now that a lot of these guys are starting to — at least a portion of their fields that they might not harvest right now, they're harvesting and donating to food banks and churches and such like that.
Michelle: Isn't it also true that you can't simply donate a literal ton of food to a food bank? Food goes bad. It's not like donating a couple of crates of broccoli; you're talking about truckloads of produce with nowhere to go. Is that right?
Terry: Yes. We have a grower out here that just about all his lettuce goes to Taco Bell, and he can't get anybody to take it.
Michelle: What's happening to him?
Terry: Well, he's a pretty good-sized grower. He's pretty diversified. Right now, they're okay. Everybody is okay right now, but they don't know how long they're going to be okay for. Internally, it could be more than we know, but as (far as) we know right now, everybody is okay.
Michelle: Terry, you deal with growers on a personal level regularly. How has your day-to-day as a crop advisor changed?
Terry: Oh, you don't talk to anybody face-to-face. You don't go into anybody's office. Tempers are a little flared. People are a little bit more short with you. You go out into the field and it's like a ghost town. You don't see anybody. Business, right now, is all over the phone or all texting or emails. There's just no face-to-face business anymore.
Michelle: Terry, you've made pretty good friends in some of these growers who are suffering terribly right now. What are you thinking as you see this all unfolding? Emotionally, how are you holding up, and how are the growers holding up?
Terry: Well, everybody's trying to stay optimistic. There are guys that — it's like, in our business, anybody who tells you right now, "We're not going to work with you," well, they're not going to be your customer when this is over, and that's just what it is. It's a relationship. I feel for them. I feel for their families, and they feel for us, too. We're all in the same boat, but it's just a somber feeling. It's just all uncertain.
Michelle: Terry, you've been doing this for a really long time. How many years?
Terry: Simplot, nine years, but I (spent) 16 years before that with another company.
Michelle: I want to know, from all the experience you have: have you ever seen anything like this? Growers face uncertainty year-round, but this — has there ever been anything like it?
Terry: Never. I've never seen anything like this. This is new to me.
Michelle: Farmers, of course, they're resilient. We know that. Is this a breaking point for them?
Terry: I don't think so. I think most of them have the attitude that it's just a small setback. (In) farming, they have them all the time. It's a stressful world, the (world of) agriculture. We fight adversity every day, and this, I think, this is something most of us have never seen before, but we're going to get through it, and I think everybody has the same attitude.
Michelle: A lot of times, you hear about crisis driving innovation. I wonder if, through this pandemic, do you see the potential for opportunities — even if it's a different way of doing business down the line?
Terry: Yes. I think there's a lot of talk here, on the coast, about certain crops being harvested mechanically that aren't harvested mechanically now. A lot of people are working on things like that, and I think it's going to really speed things like that up so, if something like this happens again, we're not so dependent on field workers.
Michelle: Terry, as a crop advisor, what's your biggest fear, your biggest concern, right now?
Terry: My biggest (concern) is customers I have going out of business. If it goes that way, if these bigger farms start taking things over, there's just not enough work to go around for all of us. That's my biggest fear right now.
Michelle: Do you feel that the world will perceive agriculture in a different way after this? Right now, it's up to growers. It's up to farmers. It's up to producers. Without them, there is no food at the supermarket. Do you think that they will be perceived differently — in a more positive light, maybe?
Terry: Well, I sure hope so. I would like to think they would. I don't think that the impact of it has even hit yet, how much the farmer feeds the world. I really hope that people will see how much we are needed and just the issues that we face just to put something in the store or to put something on your plate.
Michelle: You talked about some of the uncertainty and some of the hardships that farmers go through. When you look at your growers right now and you see what's on their face, how do you describe it?
Terry: It's just uncertainty. Like I said, it's just a somber thing. You just listen to, "Man, we're running 30% today. We want to take how many pounds of spinach, and we're only able to take this many because we can't sell it.” A lot of it is, right now — because right now is usually a good time for the markets because it's a transition between the desert and the coast, so markets are usually good right now, and they're all missing out on that.
Michelle: Terry, I hear a hint of what I would say is optimism in your voice. How are you staying so positive during this time?
Terry: Well, you have to. You've got to keep going. You've got to keep moving on and do the best job you can for these guys, because they (have to) pay their bills. You have to right now or you're going to go crazy. When you've got to go straight from the field to home and to have to stay there, you've got to stay positive and just hope that we're going to get through this, or you're going to go nuts.
Michelle: How do you see us coming back? When we turn back on the economy, how will growers respond?
Terry: Well, I think it's going to take some time. I don't think markets are going to boom. I think they'll be steady for a while, but I think they're going to bounce back fine, and it'll be just business as usual when this is over.
Michelle: Terry, I certainly appreciate hearing the positivity and the optimism in your voice. It's a great thing to hear during these uncertain times, and we really appreciate you being with us.
Terry: No problem.
Michelle: Terry Brebes, a crop advisor for Simplot Grower Solutions. Terry, stay safe and well, and again, thank you very much.
Terry: No problem. You too.
Michelle: For additional resources on COVID-19, visit alltech.com.