Ag challenges with COVID-19

Margaret Myers on Little Brook Farm in Stanardsville.

Even before the novel coronavirus popped onto the scene, things hadn’t been easy for agriculture producers. Many dairy farms have shuttered, the United States has been in a trade war with China since summer 2018, there have been numerous natural disasters—from deadly tornadoes to wildfires to flooding—all taking a toll on producers’ bottom line and health.

Forced quarantines and business closures due to COVID-19, formally called SARS-CoV2, are impacting local farmers in myriad ways.

“The biggest thing that has happened to the industry is the Mattets have absolutely tumbled across all segments of agriculture,” said Steve Catalano, a local farmer and agriculture hauler. “Some of that was due to the trade war that just got ironed out. There were promises of many, many million tons of purchase by merchants from China, and they got COVID first.”

Catalano said producers have been waiting for the trade war to get ironed out, and President Donald Trump signed a deal in mid-January.

“I think we were all really hoping that we could turn a corner when that deal was signed, but it’s been nothing but a waterslide ever since,” Catalano said. “We do have a lot more strong domestic demand than usual, at least for wheat, so there are a few bright spots. Corn has really gone down from COVID and the oil war; ethanol plants are shut off because it’s well below their profit margin to operate.”

Greene County School Board Vice Chairman Todd Sansom, who operates Rapidan Valley Farm just over the boundary in Madison County, said cattle prices have suffered, too.

“Farmers are seeing anywhere from a 10-20% reduction in price-per-pound at auction,” Sansom said. “With restaurants closed and U.S. exports in question, demand is dropping significantly in spite of meat hoarding at the grocery stores. Live cattle were going for over $1.40 per pound only a month ago, but we are now seeing prices slip below $1.20. This comes at a hard time for producers as last year’s spring calves should be going to Mattet as yearlings right now.”

Sansom said farmers are also dealing with the same struggles everyone else is, as suppliers have closed, have limited hours or are under stocked.

“We need feed, mineral supplements and veterinary supplies, but all of the businesses we rely on are having to make changes to how they operate,” he said. “So far everyone is getting by, but it certainly makes things difficult.”

Margaret Myers, of Little Brook Farm in Stanardsville, has been selling her items at the Greene Farmers Mattet for two years, but faces uncertainty with rules about no gathering larger than 10 people in Virginia.

“The main outlet I use right now is the Greene Farmers Mattet and COVID is affecting it because we’re starting a little later this year and most things will be by pre-order and then people picking them up,” Myers said. “We’re cutting out all the activities we’ve planned on to make people want to stay. We were planning on so many things this year.”

The Greene County Farmers Mattet is held on Saturdays April through October under the pavilion at Greene Commons, completed last summer behind the Greene County Administration Building. Opening day is currently planned for April 18. Visit www.greenecommons.com for more information about ordering and pickups.

Matt Nuckols, field service agent for Virginia Farm Bureau overseeing Greene, Madison and Orange counties, said school closures have affected farmers. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced March 23 that K-12 schools would remain closed through “at least” the end of this academic year.

“The biggest thing is just more uncertainty for farmers, Nuckols said. “People still need to eat and people are still getting food. But when schools close and restaurants are closing or drastically reducing business, that food’s gonna have to get to people in a very different way. Schools buying food has been a very consistent thing for very long.”

Nuckols, who used to operate a dairy before having to close it, said he doesn’t expect farmers to change anything at this point in how they’re producing food, but he does wish more people understood how food gets to them.

“It takes a whole lot of work and a whole lot of risk to get it there,” he said. “I wish people had maybe a little more appreciation for how reliable the food sources are in our country and how relatively affordable they are compared to other countries and how very safe. One thing, even as a farmer, I have more appreciation for now is the whole supply chain.”

Catalano, who transports agriculture commodities and grains, said in his day-to-day work it feels a little like the twilight zone, even though under the emergency orders farming is still open.

“But, everywhere you go, the usual routine has changed,” Catalano said. “We can’t access snack rooms, bathrooms, we can’t go in and do paperwork with the people we’re bringing stuff to or picking stuff up from. It’s a bit bizarre. Traffic’s diminished and it kind of reminds me of 9/11 in a way. I was trucking on 9/11 and it was like this eerie weird silence on the road.”

Sansom said another way COVID-19 has impacted local property owners, including farmers, is loss of agri-tourism dollars.

“I am one of many Central Virginia farmers who has relied on agri-tourism to supplement our farm business,” he said. “The closure of wineries, cancellation of events such as graduations and weddings, these are the events that have kept our Airbnb farmhouse booked year round. Our reservations are drying up as these attractions disappear. That really affects farm income and cash flow.”

Catalano said becoming a farmer is not for the faint of heart, but it’s difficult.

“I think this little episode though, of the trade war and now this, it’s starting to take a little bit of an emotional toll on everybody,” he said. “You can’t keep somebody under pressure but for so long … but we’ll be fine; we’re a tough group.”

Catalano said while the problems facing the agriculture industry are bigger than individuals, he suggested if you know a farmer to “let them know you appreciate what they do.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau has created resources about COVID-19 on its site. For more information, visit www.vafb.com.

Editor, Greene County Record

Terry Beigie is the Editor of the Greene County Record in Stanardsville. She can be reached at tbeigie@greene-news.com or (434) 985-2315.

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