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COVID-19's impact to the economy is hurting Idaho farmers

Posted at 1:22 PM, Apr 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-19 20:32:21-04

PARMA, Idaho — The Snake River region on the border of Idaho and Oregon is one of the biggest suppliers of onions in the United States, but due to the repercussions from the coronavirus, onions at these farms are going to waste.

Owyhee Produce is a third-generation Idaho farm, and they dug a ten-foot-high trench and backfilled it with tens of thousands of onions that are now rotting in the sun.

"Economically speaking in this valley, it has been very significant," said Shay Myers. "We have gone from shipping 150 semi-loads a day down to below the 70 truck range, so we have lost more than half of our market share."

Myers told us this happened because when restaurants closed down or scaled back their operations, it caused a ripple effect.

Normally, Owyhee Produce would bag their onions in bulk and transport them to food distributors who would then supply restaurants and other customers with onions, but with demand for onions dropping significantly, the food distributors have maxed out their storage capacity leaving Owyhee Produce with no supply chain.

"I think it is more scary than anything else just to see what the ramifications have been and just how damaging this could be," said Myers. "We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of loss just in this valley, just in the onion industry. I don't know how it is survivable."

Many people wonder why not give the onions to a food bank instead of letting them go to waste?

Myers explained it like this: they are taking a big loss on the onions, but to package the onions, it would cost the farm around three dollars a bag. So, economically, they can't justify losing even more money on what has been a devastating start to 2020. Plus, Owyhee Farms have maxed out their small cold storage space; they rely on the food distributors to do that.

The food distributors have been taking their excess products to food banks to manage their storage space, but they don't have any room for a new shipment of onions.

That is the reason dairy farmers are pouring milk down the drain and one of the reasons Cranney Farms southeast of Twin Falls piled their potatoes on the ground and invited people to come to take what they need.

"We've lost part of our crop this year, and what will we lose in 2020?" asked Myers. "We are already seeing reductions in contracts, and we have to consider that this is going to continue for at least a year."

To make matters worse, Owyhee Produce already spent the time, the energy and the cost to harvest their crop before the pandemic changed everything. They at least have the opportunity to asses how to manage the asparagus crop that they are currently harvesting.

But if economic conditions continue to crush the demand for their produce, it will have a devastating effect on this region, which is one of the largest producers of onions in the United States market.

"30 percent of us will be out of business if we continue the way that we are," said Myers. "If we supply 40 percent of the onions in the United States, what does that mean? Where does that food supply shift? where does it come from?"

The COVID-19 pandemic raises a lot of questions for farmers, and Myers doesn't believe his farm will survive without government help.

"We would prefer not to have government help, I think as an industry most of us would say protect this industry," said Myers. "Protect American agriculture."

Myers said the best way to do that would be to revise trade agreements, which make it hard for American farms to compete against imports, but he also said it is important for people who go to the grocery store to care about where their food comes from.