Southeast Texas farmers feel effects of restaurant closure during COVID-19 crisis

Impacts of the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic are being felt within businesses across the country.

Social distancing rules have already taken a big bite out of the restaurant industry. While restaurants can still serve meals by takeout, delivery, and drive-thru, the amount of customers at most establishments has dramatically decreased.

Further down the food chain, restaurants are buying less produce and meat from farms nationwide.

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On Thursday, we visited Atkinson Farms in North Harris County to see how they’re surviving the pandemic.

“The plants don’t know there’s a virus,” said Mike Atkinson, part owner of Atkinson Farms. “We plant what we think we can sell. This kale has been planted since November or December. In November or December, we didn’t’ know we’d be in the fix we are now.”

According to Atkinson, restaurants normally purchase almost half of their crops. However, as a result of recent restaurant closures and restrictions, that number has drastically reduced. On their property, Atkinson says they have about 6 acres of kale that would normally have sold 2 weeks ago. Unfortunately, without any buyers the remaining kale will likely become trash. Atkinson believes the kale would be worth between $60-70 thousand dollars.

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“[Because] the restaurants went that way; we’re probably going to lose 4-5 acres of [kale] that we weren’t able to harvest,” said Atkinson.

Since the 1960s, Atkinson Farms has re-grown from countless hail storms, hurricanes, and floods. However, Atkinson says the current pandemic is a different type of crisis.

“The thing with a hurricane or a flood, two days it’s gone and you can start over,” said Atkinson. “We’ve been through this for five or six weeks now, [and] it’s not getting any better.”

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The Atkinson produce market is still open for business at their property along Spring Cypress Road in North Harris County. Even with social distancing protocols, people can still pick strawberries at the farm, but only a limited number of customers are allowed inside their market at a given time.

While produce sales to restaurants have decreased for the farm, Atkinson says they are still trying to sell as much produce as possible. Despite a drop in numbers, the farm still sells boxes of produce to area restaurants.

“Whatever we have in the field, most of it goes in the box,” said Atkinson. “It’s not a specialty to them anymore, it’s what they can get. With the travel restrictions and everything happening, it may get real tough.”

Like other farmers nationwide, Atkinson is trying to plan for the pandemic as best as possible.  Unsure what the future holds, their farm continues planting seeds for a future that hopefully doesn’t involve COVID-19.

“We’re going to sell as much as we can, plow the rest of it up, and start over,” said Atkinson.