Delaware’s food chain is a doubly important part of its society. Agriculture means feeding the public, and it also means jobs, income and tax revenue.

“There are lot of steps … in getting the chicken to your dinner plate,” said Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry. “And if any one of those links breaks, then of course the system struggles.”

The pandemic and state-of-emergency have disrupted the agriculture industry, so farmers, processing plant managers and government groups are trying to plan for a post-pandemic future. On May 19, the Delaware Chamber of Commerce invited experts to speak on “COVID-19 and Delaware’s Food Supply Chain,” in a virtual panel discussion that focused on the poultry industry, shortages and the overall supply chain.

Hocker's and Mountaire sell big bags of chicken

Hocker's employees on Saturday, March 21, help unload a Mountaire Farms truck full of 10-pound bags of chicken, which the store brought in to help ensure local customers had plenty of protein on hand during the state-of-emergency. A second truck was brought in due to demand, and another such sale was scheduled for the following week as concerns about supply drove people to stock up.

“The first link that we saw starting to break was our marketplace, so almost overnight, food companies lost almost 50 percent of their marketplace across the U.S. when restaurants, schools and institutions closed down,” Porter said.

Perhaps people were buying more groceries, but suppliers weren’t “nimble” enough to switch the infrastructure, said Richard Wilkins, president of the Delaware Farm Bureau. Companies that sell 10-pound bags of chicken legs to restaurants couldn’t necessarily switch overnight to produce 1-pound trays for grocery shoppers. The same might be said for milk cartons or frozen vegetables.

Although the federal government and marketplace did allow already-packaged items to move through grocery chains, “It seemed there was difficulty in distribution channels to make that happen quickly enough. That’s the reason we had some spot shortages at the retail level of foodstuffs,” Wilkins said.

Next, there was absenteeism in poultry plants. Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as in plants in the Midwest, but there were still employees who were sick, who were afraid to carry illness to vulnerable family members at home or who suddenly lost childcare because schools and daycares closed.

That contributed to at least one company having to “depopulate,” or slaughter nearly 2 million birds without sending them to market.

“When the processing plants aren’t able to process, aren’t able to run those chickens through, then that backs up what is out on the farm,” Porter said. “Our chickens are really only able to get to a certain size, and then you start to have some animal welfare issues.

“Any other time, if a processing plant would have gone down … they would have looked at a multitude of options, which they did, but unfortunately when all of the companies are feeling the same pressures, then no one is really able to adjust at all.”

No other companies could help process the animals for regular or even pet food.

The third phase came in late March, with more CDC guidance on sanitation, washing, masks, social distancing, plastic dividers, preliminary screenings and education.

“Our food processing plants already have some of the highest standards in sanitation. … We already have high sanitation, we already have a lot of quality assurance, and we already have a lot of auditing that takes place within our food processing centers to begin with,” Porter said, so human safety became the focus, in addition to bird safety.

In mid-May, processing plants were in the middle of full-scale employee testing, which has identified a number of asymptomatic carriers of the illness. That allows them to quarantine, rather than unknowingly risk the health of other coworkers, family members or their community.

Phase 5 will be the light at the end of the tunnel, as absenteeism gradually decreases. And the demand is still there. The public wants to eat chicken.

“I think that that a lot of these practices are here to stay,” said Porter. “The companies have already invested the funds into the infrastructure, whether that’s the barriers that are in between employees on the lines, additional face masks, face shields, the temperature scanning… Just because things are reopening doesn’t mean that COVID has gone away … especially if there’s no vaccine available.”

“At the same time that we have shortages … and price inflations of some of the food stuffs at the consumer level, farmers are being paid less for what they’re producing, and that’s just extremely frustrating and challenging situation for me,” said Wilkins, explaining that farmers are being offered less partly because the processing plants didn’t have the employees to keep producing at a typical rate.

Meanwhile, “We’re cautiously optimistic that, by the time our fruit and vegetable crops will be ready to harvest this summer, that that [migrant] labor force will have already been able to adapt to the COVID-19 situation, and we won’t have any disruptions in the availability of that labor,” although guidelines and protections are still being developed to protect workers and help farmers handle potential disruptions.

Delaware has had some advantages and opportunities to take advantage of. Frozen and canned vegetables have flown off the shelves and out of warehouses. Delaware also benefits from nearby deep-sea ports on the eastern seaboard for exports.

Consumers have realized they can get produce directly from local farms, not just the large-scale grocery stores. Wilkins said he is glad that more people are paying attention to how food gets from the farm to the table.

“In the long-term, we think that may be a transition that we need to capitalize on,” Wilkins said. “We’re hoping at the state and regional and federal levels that lessons learned from the COVID-19 situation will allow us to put in place systems in our food distribution systems that allow for more resiliency.”

The Delaware Farm Bureau will be working on resiliency and adaptation for the next few years.

“I’m a believer in diversification and resiliency. … Becoming totally dependent on one marketplace for your products is a dangerous thing to become dependent on,” Wilkins said.

“As far as supermarket sales, there is such a thing as self-fulfilling prophesy,” he added. “Consumers become fearful that, as they start to see sales becoming slim, the psychological reaction is, ‘Well, I’m going to buy more than what I really need,’ …and that’s what’s causing a lot of the spot shortages. I think once some of these consumers run out of pantry space, I think these shelves will be able to be restocked a little bit.”

Luckily, production time for chickens is about six to eight weeks, so as the supply chain stabilizes, poultry can return to grocery shelves faster than other meats, Porter said.

She thanked all the growers and workers, those “unsung heroes” in the agriculture markets “who are really continuing to keep food on the plate for all of us as consumers.”

The Delaware Chamber of Commerce will be hosting several guest talks on COVID-19, regarding public health, federal reserve banks, contact tracing and rethinking the workspace. Details are online at www.dscc.com and the “DEStateChamber” YouTube account.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.