How coronavirus broke the agriculture supply chain : The Indicator from Planet Money Supermarket shelves are empty, and food banks around the country are besieged. So why are farmers dumping, destroying and giving away food?

The Great Potato Giveaway

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Ryan Cranney runs Cranney Farms in Oakley, Idaho. It's a little town in southern Idaho, about 800 people.

RYAN CRANNEY: We've been here in this valley, our farm on the same land, for 113 years. Right out their office window, you look out and see the mountains on both sides and big, old, wide-open fields.

VANEK SMITH: Ryan grows russet potatoes. Those are the really big, brown potatoes with the papery skin.

CRANNEY: If you've had French fries, I'm sure you probably had our potatoes before. You know, a lot of our stuff ends up in McDonald's and Burger King, Wendy's, Red Robins.

VANEK SMITH: Ryan says potatoes are a great crop. The price is steady. Demand is basically always growing because, you know, French fries.

CRANNEY: Up until the COVID thing. Then all that changed.

VANEK SMITH: Ryan had all of these potatoes he had just harvested and nobody to buy them. So Ryan decided to give them all away.

CRANNEY: Maybe 2 million potatoes.

VANEK SMITH: Two million potatoes.

CRANNEY: Yeah. Isn't that crazy?

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, the great potato giveaway - why Ryan Cranney gave away 2 million potatoes - because a giveaway doesn't seem to make that much sense right now - not when supermarkets are running out of everything, and millions of Americans are struggling just to get enough to eat. Still, right now, farmers like Ryan all over the country are pouring out milk, plowing their lettuce back into the soil, trashing their potatoes and eggs. So what's going on? As it turns out, the food industry is kind of the victim of its own success.

Ryan Cranney has been in the potato business all his life. His potatoes go all over the world. He grows around a billion potatoes a year - a billion potatoes. And about 90% of them go to restaurants. Ryan's 2 million potatoes - the ones he gave away - were set to sell for around $75,000. But you know, suddenly, no one wanted to buy them. And those potatoes that he paid to plant and grow and harvest were going to earn him nothing.

CRANNEY: I felt panicked. I felt extremely nervous. There was, you know, several days where, you know, I didn't sleep well. I was just super anxious. I take it very seriously when, you know, something is going to threaten our family and our heritage.

VANEK SMITH: And as Ryan was grappling with these huge questions, there was this more immediate question he needed to answer, which was what to do with all of these potatoes. They were already harvested. They were going to go bad. So he and his team just dumped them on the ground in this giant pile. It was huge. It was nearly two stories high. And Ryan just stared at this huge pile of potatoes that he could not sell.

CRANNEY: And I looked at them for a couple hours, and I kept thinking to myself, what can I possibly do with these - we could get some good out of them? And I couldn't think of anything financially that would be beneficial. No way to sell them other than maybe cattle feed, which is just, you know, peanuts. And so the thought just came to me. Why don't I try to give them away and let people come gather them up? And you know, I knew that potatoes have somewhat been hard to find in the grocery store. And so I said, well, let's just see if we can give them away.

VANEK SMITH: Ryan took a photo of the great potato pile and posted it on his Facebook page with a note that read, free potatoes. We started dumping potatoes today, as we have no home for them because of this COVID-19 disaster. If you would like a few bags, come on by. And Oakley, Idaho - it's kind of in the middle of nowhere. Ryan figured, you know, a few of his friends, a few locals might show up.

CRANNEY: And it just took off like wildfire. About three hours later, we had a steady stream of traffic.

VANEK SMITH: Cars were lined up to the potato pile. People were filling up their truck beds and car trunks and crates and bags. Ryan says a lot of the people were volunteers getting carfuls of potatoes for food banks or shelters or elderly homes. Thousands of people showed up from as far away as Kansas, Nevada.

CRANNEY: Somebody called from Ohio, which is - I mean, that's, like, 24-hour drive. And there were times we counted over 30 cars at a time that were there.

VANEK SMITH: Here's the thing. People need food right now. Unemployment is likely near 20%. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Food banks are flooded with requests. Also, supermarket shelves are empty. People are paying really high prices for things. And at the same time, farmers are trashing their crops. So what is going on?

Daniel Sumner is an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. He says the problem boils down to two things.

DANIEL SUMNER: How streamlined and specialized things are.

VANEK SMITH: Daniel says the food chain in the U.S. has gotten incredibly efficient in recent years. Growers grow exactly what a certain restaurant or a certain company needs. They grow food for that company. They package it for that company. They ship it right to that company.

SUMNER: The farmer will be linked directly to the restaurant customers and grow for that restaurant in San Francisco or New York City or somebody growing exactly the kind of lettuce that McDonald's needs for their hamburgers. That's been a great system.

VANEK SMITH: Fast, cost-efficient, less waste, fresher food for everyone. Still, Daniel says, because the food-growing industry has gotten so specialized, when the system gets disrupted, there's not much flexibility. It's hard for growers who grow for a fancy restaurant or a giant fast-food chain to pivot to selling in a supermarket. They're so specialized they can't adapt right away. So you end up in this weird paradoxical situation.

SUMNER: It causes consumer prices to go up, and shortages appear to consumers. And at the same time, the demand for the farm product goes down.

VANEK SMITH: This is exactly what's happened to Ryan Cranney with his potatoes. So Ryan normally ships his potatoes to restaurants in 50-pound boxes or 2,000-pound bags. Now he's trying to get his potatoes to supermarkets, but he cannot find a way to pack them.

CRANNEY: We aren't set up to pack small bags at a very fast rate. Well, we have one little antique baggie machine that we ship to the grocery stores out of. Well, now we're trying to shove every potato we have into this little antique machine. Well, then people (unintelligible) why - you know, why don't you send, you know, the big boxes to the grocery? - which we had sent some big boxes of grocery, but then the consumers kind of kick back against it because there was too much. Even a big family like mine, where I have five children - even us - we couldn't get through 50 pounds of potatoes before they go bad.

VANEK SMITH: Some farmers are trying to sell 50-pound boxes of potatoes on Amazon for around $150 a box. But mostly, the potatoes are just rotting in fields or, if they're new, they're just grown, they're sitting in storage.

CRANNEY: You know, we have $6 million in potatoes that are in storage right now.

VANEK SMITH: Ryan has grown all of those potatoes for specific buyers. They're pre-sold. Still, he's worried that those places will not be able to pay for the potatoes they ordered all those months ago, and he'll have hundreds of millions of potatoes just rotting and no income. He says the potatoes will keep until about August. And if they go bad, he says, his farm will be in a pretty dire situation.

CRANNEY: It's going to be a scary few months.

VANEK SMITH: Still, in the midst of all the scariness, Ryan says the potato giveaway has been this incredibly rewarding bright spot. He says people have been so grateful, and he's felt so great knowing that his potatoes are going to shelters and food banks and helping some people who are in the greatest need.

CRANNEY: I had a conversation with a man at the potato pile last week. And, you know, he came up, and he was teary-eyed and kind of cried a little bit. Yeah, he's just saying that, you know, this is - all this is so wonderful. I wish people would give, you know, like you are. And I'm like, what do you mean like I am? Like, you're doing the same thing. You're giving just the same. This is such an amazing experience that whatever we donated, it was more than worth it, no question.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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