Valley lettuce industry hit hard by effects of COVID-19 outbreak

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The COVID-19 outbreak has hit the restaurant industry hard with many struggling to stay afloat. But it's also having a devastating effect on some valley food producers.

Instead of harvesting a healthy-looking lettuce crop, crews were ripping heads of lettuce right out of the field in Coalinga.

They were ready to be shipped across the U.S. "As of about two weeks ago, the foodservice sales went almost to zero," Harris Farms Manager Steve Ozuna explained.

Irrigation drip tape was being pulled out at the same time as the lettuce. Much of the crop was destined for restaurants, but many have either closed or have been reduced to takeout orders, so shippers started calling Harris Farms.

Harris Farms owner John Harris told Action News, "they said they couldn't use it. You're probably going to have to disc it up. It was so hard to believe."

Harris said food service - restaurants, schools, cafeterias - represents a large segment of the food industry. "Normally, most of the lettuce taking care of the whole nation is coming from California, so we geared up to serve a whole bunch of people."

But now crews have started the process of putting it back into the soil. A staggering amount of lettuce will be plowed back into the ground.

"We're talking over 6 million heads of iceberg lettuce over 254 acres."

The crop was ready for harvest, but demand for it suddenly dropped. Harris said, "you lose a big segment of the market and there's no obvious place for it to go."

Some lettuce was being picked. Boxes from one field will be shipped to Walmart stores, but shoppers appeared to be more interested in stocking the pantry rather than buy fruits and vegetables.

Ozuna said, "it's something we probably should all be eating right now, but I think people are going after the things that are storable."

As a result, the spring lettuce crop will now help fertilize fields in western Fresno County. Harris added it would be very difficult to donate a large amount of a perishable product like lettuce to food banks.

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