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The coronavirus brought much of San Diego — and the country — to a standstill. Residents are isolating in their homes and working remotely, classrooms are moving online, most beaches and parks are closed, and many businesses have temporarily shut down.
City streets that once buzzed with people are going quiet in the wake of local leaders implementing policies that prohibit large gatherings. That makes grocery stores and other businesses that sell food items some of the only pieces of the economy that are going strong.
But while it may seem as if business is booming, the agricultural industry in San Diego — the farmworkers, farmers and food distributors — is experiencing the economic impact of the global pandemic as hard as anyone else as it quickly shifts to accommodate a changing marketplace. Food is in high demand, yet some of those in charge of providing those products are struggling to stay afloat.
A week after San Diego County confirmed its first positive test for COVID-19, I met Marisela Monroy Ramirez, who’s worked on farms for more than 20 years in North County. Her tenure has earned her the trust of farmworkers in the community who depend on her support when times gets hard. She offers them food, clothing, tips on how they better monitor their health and words of wisdom.
Since the outbreak began to speed up, Monroy said, several workers have expressed concern about their hours being cut and not having enough food for their families. “One woman told me that she has trauma over what’s happening,” she said. “But I told her to have faith and that hopefully something good will come out of all this.”
While Monroy enjoys comforting other workers, she also worries about the future of her own job. Monroy currently works at Atkin Nursery in Fallbrook, where she has multiple responsibilities. She said she’s now only working three days a week because of the pandemic. Two of her daughters, who work in restaurants and pitch in for rent every month, have also stopped working due to all the business closures.
“If they keep cutting our hours, I really don’t know what I’m going to do because I have several bills to pay,” she said.
Victor Gonzalez, the owner of Atkins Nursery, said his business has lost money because many of his customers have stopped buying his produce during the pandemic. His farm cultivates more than 400 types of fruits, including avocados, oranges and cherimoyas.
Gonzalez usually sells his fruits at farmer’s markets in nearby counties, including San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles. But in recent weeks, markets have closed throughout the area.
Gonzalez also sells to local distributors that supply grocery stores and restaurants. But despite the high demand for produce, he said packing houses have started canceling his orders.
“It’s getting worse with every day that goes by,” said Gonzalez, who estimates a 50 percent lost in profits because of the pandemic.
Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said the region’s wide demographic of agriculture may be part of the reason why small farmers like Gonzalez have had a hard time selling their produce.
“We are known for specialty crops,” she said. “What you’re growing has a big factor in where you’re able to sell,” she said.
In other words, the pandemic can make it harder for farmers to sell guavas and cherimoyas when more common products like lettuces or zucchinis may be flying off the shelves.
Produce distributors in Los Angeles are facing a similar predicament. They saw a high demand for dry goods, such as bean and rice, rather than fresh fruit.
Stephen Huynh, the owner of Ocean Palace Wholesale, said the closure of restaurants has been the biggest blow to his business, which distributes food products to different Asian restaurants across San Diego. Because of the pandemic, he’s been forced to have his employees work just three to four days a week instead of the regular five days. He estimates at least a 30 percent loss in profit within the last month.
To stay afloat, Huynh is accommodating the few restaurants that are still open. He has temporarily removed the minimum amount of cases a restaurant can order and is making deliveries whenever he can.
“There’s none of that. If you need something, let us know. We’ll ship it the next day for you,” he said.
Ocean Palace has also opened its doors to anyone from the public who wants to buy rice, which has been flying off the shelves. Huynh said his business has sold 300,000 pounds of rice just within the last couple of weeks — almost half of his sales from last year.
“We’re just going to keep adjusting. If we do have to close down, then we’ll close down,” Huynh said. “Whatever is going to help with this COVID-19, we’re all in for it.”
Meanwhile, Gonzalez said he will also continue to sell what he can and wait until things settle down. But for now, he’s focusing on teaching his son and daughter how to run the business so he can get on with retirement. “I guess I’m going to have to drug myself to keep going,” he said jokingly.
The coronavirus pandemic may be turning Monroy’s life upside down, but she said she will continue to have faith and uplift other farmworkers who may be going through worse.
“For those that don’t have much, I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll find help to bring you food. Don’t worry, we will all eat,’” she said.