UNICOI, Tenn. (WJHL) – As their first group of seasonal migrant workers began arriving early last April, Jones and Church Farms was as shellshocked as everyone else, co-owner Renee Jones recalls.
“We were scared, ‘are we gonna be able to get this crop out, what is this year gonna look like,’” Jones told News Channel 11 as some of the large tomato grower’s two dozen or so year-round staff operated a precision seeder and set rack after rack into a heated area to germinate.
“So definitely lots of concerns this time last year.”
Like most farm operators — some, including Scotts Strawberries, hit harder than others — the tomato growers adapted and survived.
“The pandemic probably highlighted for everyone that farmers and those involved in agriculture are essential,” Tennessee Farm Bureau President and Washington County cattle farmer Jeff Aiken said.
“It has in a very positive way been good to see that folks have a new and greater appreciation for farmers.”
Jones said as uncertainty about the pandemic swirled last spring, she had no idea what the final impact would be on an operation that typically gets 900,000 to 1,000,000 25-pound boxes out of 600 acres of tomatoes.
“We do a fresh market, mature greens, vine ripes and roma tomatoes,” Jones said. “We ship all up and down the eastern seaboard, we go into Canada, we go west of the Mississippi.”
Started in the mid-1970s, the business was facing its most uncertain year ever. Jones and her main partner, Greg Church, quickly realized the roughly 10 percent of their business consisting of cruise lines would evaporate.
“We reduced our acreage to deal with that so we weren’t trying to find a home for those tomatoes. That was just a marketing decision that had to be made.”
While they were making that call, tomato growers with earlier seasons were getting hit hard — and Jones wasn’t sure it wouldn’t happen here.
“Some of the stuff started opening back up by July a little bit so that was very helpful, but yeah, you could not handle (a significant delay) in this type of operation,” Jones said. “You’d just have to plow everything under, which a lot of farms did in Georgia and Florida.”
Battling twin uncertainties
The Farm Bureau’s Aiken said farmers — Tennessee’s biggest economic sector at $81 billion annually — were facing uncertainty on two fronts.
“The initial concern (was) amidst a pandemic would farmers be able to get a crop out and take care of their animals,” Aiken said.
Ultimately, sufficient labor and supplies were available. The second concern arose when it became clear restaurants would be out of commission for awhile.
“(Product) has to go to a processing facility and some of those backed up a little bit due to both worker concerns due to COVID and also due to needing to retool their packaging and production from restaurant-sized to grocery store.”
For Jones and Church, everything generally worked out, even as the business confronted a COVID outbreak among its workers. They collaborated closely with public health officials so even asymptomatic positive workers could work together in pods.
“Our regional health department here in East Tennessee was absolutely phenomenal in how we would quarantine folks, how we would protect folks and they really worked through those issues and concerns with us and also understanding the fact that we had to continue doing business,” Jones said.
“So they were very proactive in making sure we had the information we needed, our employees had the information they needed and that we all worked together to insure that we continued to be in business and that the employees stayed safe.”
She said the farm, which employs about 200 people in its peak season, had about 20 positive COVID cases and four workers did end up hospitalized for a period.
“They got great treatment and they were able to come back and actually go back to work.”
Jones said grappling with all the challenges was really kind of par for the course for a highly-regulated industry.
“You would not believe the amount of paperwork that’s involved in agriculture,” she said. “A lot of the regulations that we deal with are necessary and so we appreciate those and we’re glad for those and we definitely follow those.”
When winter came on, Jones and Church was counting its blessings.
“It was lower than normal but it wasn’t devastating … the vine ripe market really picked up during the pandemic because I think people ate at home more.
“I think a little bit of it compensated for itself so it wasn’t a devastating loss all the way around.”
Not everyone was so fortunate, and Aiken said much of it had to do with timing. Scotts Farms, also headquartered in Unicoi County, was unable to sell the majority of its well-loved strawberry crop after major customer Food City pulled out following a COVID outbreak among workers.
That occurred around the time that people were being advised to wash down all their groceries after returning from the store.
“It was very much expected that COVID could not be transmitted through food and I think we now are comfortable with that but I understand those initial concerns,” Aiken said. “In hindsight, there were a lot of unknowns.”
Aiken said pandemic or no, farmers regularly confront uncertainty due to weather, market fluctuations or a host of other variables.
“There’s a huge investment in producing any crop, strawberries for sure and so I feel confident that they had a tough year, but they found a way to work through it,” Aiken said of the Scotts.
“My heart goes out to the Scotts and others that suffered some of those losses but they’ll find a way to make it through.”
Even in the midst of the difficulty, Jones said the local community was very supportive. During the outbreak, people brought items the workers would need that they knew they couldn’t go to the store and get.
“It was very heartwarming to see the community come together and talk about uniting and working through a pandemic,” Jones said. “We definitely saw that this summer.”
Aiken said he’s hopeful that farmers’ critical importance stays on people’s radar in a way that helps those in the industry realize they’re appreciated.
He also thinks what everyone experienced around food and community issues could cause a shift in purchasing trends.
“I think there’ll be a renewed emphasis for a lot of consumers to want to buy local products and I’m hopeful that that will benefit farmers in the Northeast Tennessee viewing as well as all across the state and the country.”
If either of those things happen it wouldn’t bother Jones a bit.
“Farmers are good stewards of the land, they have values and morals and they care about the people that they serve, and so we want to make sure that we produce a safe product,” she said.
“That’s one of our top priorities is that we protect things and we keep things safe.”