The ongoing COVID-19 emergency has many farmers taking extra precautions on the farm and rethinking their labor strategies for the upcoming growing season.
Dairy farmers are worried about the impact the outbreak will have on dairy prices, which only recently started rebounding from a multiyear slump. American Agriculturist talked to farmers across the Northeast region about what they’re thinking amid the outbreak:
At Welcome Stock Farm in Northumberland, N.Y., dairy farmer and avid basketball fan Neil Peck says COVID-19 has turned March Madness into March Sadness.
“I’m just worried about my workers going to a gathering, getting sick and not being able to work,” Peck says. “I guess us owners would have to do more work.”
Peck urges all farm workers, both foreign and local, to minimize public contact and follow protocols such as increased hand washing and maintaining a safe distance from other people.
David Wood, who owns and operates the 2,000-head Eildon Tweed Farm in Saratoga County, N.Y., is worried about the effects on milk prices.
“The virus is a real concern with our milk market,” he says. “Prices have started to rise, and I hope they stay there.”
Effects of isolation
A lengthy shutdown on public events could greatly affect consumer sales, including dairy products, he says. The farm employs about 25 people. He, too, has given workers instructions on how to stay healthy because he can’t afford to lose anyone.
“We’re pretty much in a holding pattern right now,” says Jason Pullis, president of the New York Holstein Association, which runs the New York Spring Dairy Carousel. “Whether or not we have the New York Spring Dairy Carousel depends upon what the governor says and what the Department of Health says. We don’t know how this will turn out.”
The Syracuse-based organization hosts the dairy cow show.
Cancelled or rescheduled ag events in New York include those hosted by Cornell University and the State University of New York (SUNY) campuses, as well as other institutions that have cancelled classes or transitioned to distance learning, including the Agronomy Scout School.
At Stoney Ridge Maple in Farmington, N.Y., owners Chris and Melinda Rodas are worried about the upcoming Maple Weekends — the second of which will be held March 28-29 — where they host up to 700 visitors for pancake breakfasts.
“It scares us pretty good to be honest,” Chris says. “If the New York State Maple Association shuts it down, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
“We have a lot of money wrapped up in preparing for Maple weekend,” Melinda says. “We’ve taken extra precautions like buying juice boxes instead of pouring juice and packaged silverware so there’s less handling. We’ll have workers putting pancakes on the plate and, as always, they’ll be wearing gloves. We’ll have more hand washing stations and more hand sanitizer.”
Chris adds that if the weather is nice, they may leave the doors open so visitors won’t have to touch doorknobs and handles.
“The unknown 100% worries us,” Melinda says. “It’s the way of farming, but this is a whole new curve, another layer of uncertainty.”
The farm put out 6,500 taps in the woods this season.
‘The impact is just beginning to show up’
Jon Cohen, owner of Deep Meadow Farm in Ascutney, Vt., is worried about the long-term effects of the outbreak on his vegetable business.
“The impact is just beginning to show up, and we’re all very concerned, Cohen says. “The Brattleboro Winter Farmers Market decided to convey serious caution and, as a result, 80% of the vendors decided not to come this week. The question is the long run. How long are we in for? Are we done for the season? Some farms live market to market.”
Cohen also wholesales through Deep Root Organic Cooperative. He’s heard that wholesale produce sales are down 15% across the country as people are buying up frozen produce.
“What will happen if this thing sticks around until July 4? We’re not going to see people at the farmstand or at the market. That’s where it’s going to take a toll,” he says. “I’m also worried about H-2A workers. It’s not unheard of that there could be a travel ban on Jamaica and Mexico, and even if they come, there will probably be testing and that could slow things down.”
Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm in Holtwood, Pa., says labor is a concern since most of his H-2A workers start arriving from Thailand in May. These workers will really be needed in June and July, he says, as the tomato will be in full swing by then.
“This is when it might become iffy,” Groff says. “If it does get worse, some people will be out of jobs. I hope it’s very temporary.”
Lisa Graybeal, owner of Graywood Farm LLC, a 760-cow dairy in Peach Bottom, Pa., says her 13 full-time employees, most of whom are H-2A workers, are providing plenty of coverage for milkings and other chores.
She says people shouldn’t be worried about the actual milk supply since there is plenty of milk being produced. Getting it to market, though, is a different story since people are buying up product faster than it can be replenished in stores.
“It’s uncharted territory for sure,” she says.
Leon Corse, co-owner of The Corse Farm Dairy in Whitingham, Vt., says his family is adjusting so milking and chores can be done.
“We are a multigenerational farm in a state where school is now cancelled because of COVID-19,” Corse says. “As of yesterday, we rearranged the chore schedule so our farming daughter can do her part when her nonfarming husband can be home with their 6- and 9-year-olds so Meme and Papa (me) don't have daily exposure to our seemingly-always-germ-laden grandsons until this thing passes.”
Jenny Rhodes, a University of Maryland Extension agent and owner of Deerfield Farm in Centreville, Md., says that as many Extension programs have gone exclusively online, it will also highlight the benefits and limits of rural broadband.
“Broadband isn’t available everywhere, and this is an issue here,” she says. “Out of something bad, hopefully something good comes out of this.”
Peter Brummer, who raises field crops, vegetables and livestock on more than 400 acres in Millerstown, Pa., says he’s talked to his H-2A workers about the current situation.
“It is unclear whether they will choose to come back to the area or if they will be permitted to return,” he says.
Like most people, he’s just dealing with a lot of uncertainties.
“The biggest concern is for an uncertain market. A lot of our livestock market in the spring is for club animals for 4-H and FFA members. With uncertainty going into summer and fall, many of them are being advised to proceed with projects at their own risk. We do not know if they will show up to purchase animals or not,” Brummer says. “A lot of our potato market is through French fry stands at fairs. If those are canceled, it will decimate our potato markets.
"We also have no idea how this will affect wholesale markets for livestock or vegetables in the coming season.”