.- Thomas Sowell and his wife own Southeast Palm and Foliage in Astor, Florida, in the middle of the state, about 40 miles west of Daytona Beach.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere, actually,” Sowell told CNA in January.
Sowell isn’t Catholic, but his business supplies palms to hundreds of Catholic parishes across the country— in every state, as well as in Canada— not to mention the many Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran communities that also use palms.
Last year, the Sowells’ farm shipped over four million palm leaves.
“There’s not many of us that do this. There’s not many people, not many companies do what we do,” Sowell told CNA.
“I know that there have been, over the past, say, 50 years, quite a few other companies embark upon this, but for whatever reason they couldn’t hang in there with it. It’s really difficult.”
Sowell never imagined how difficult this year’s harvest would turn out to be.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, and with Mass suspended through Holy Week in every Catholic diocese in the United States, the Sowell’s business is taking a hit.
“We had an incredible number of cancellations up until two weeks ago,” he told CNA April 2.
Most of his orders for Palm Sunday come in during January, he said. This gives the palm suppliers the chance to harvest the palms, package them, and refrigerate them so they stay fresh before they’re shipped.
Normally, some of the biggest challenges to Tom’s business are natural, such as hurricanes and flooding. In terms of the weather, this was a great harvest year, he said, and they were able to gather all the necessary palms to fulfil the Palm Sunday orders they originally had. The process of cutting, cleaning and preparing the strips of palm is incredibly labor intensive.
But then, as the coronavirus pandemic took a hold in the US, parishes started canceling those orders.
“So here we are with an incredible amount of palms left over that were scheduled to be prepared and shipped…we just lost that,” Sowell said.
Altogether, Sowell said his family will likely ship fewer than half the palms they did last year.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s hard to grasp what’s going on globally,” he said.
Though Sowell also uses leftover palms to create ashes for Ash Wednesday, he has such a large enough stockpile of ash— eight to ten years worth, in fact— that he said it doesn’t make sense to burn any more palms, especially since ash doesn’t go bad.
All the extra palms are currently in a dumpster on his property. The only thing he can really do with them, he said, is use them as fertilizer for next year’s crop.
“So we’ll just take them out, spend a few days to drive through the areas where they came from and just scatter them back out again,” he said.
Kate Olivera contributed to this report.