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Farmers report disruption, sales loss due to COVID

Photo by Natasha Matteliano Roberto Fred of Fred Farms on Temple Road in the town of Dunkirk participates in a number of local farmers markets. Leaders of the New York State Farm Bureau held a digital conference with farmers from across the state Tuesday.

Sixty-five percent of farms surveyed by the New York State Farm Bureau this month reported negative outcomes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders of the NYSFB held a digital conference with farmers from across the state Tuesday to review the new data, which was collected from over 500 farms of various types and sizes.

“We wanted to get a broader understanding of what the pandemic has meant to agriculture, and that is why we sent out an informal survey to our members last month asking them a range of questions,” said David Fisher, NYSFB president.

“What we found was that no farm was untouched by the pandemic or the economic fallout. Most of us have had to deal with price drops and supply issues, but on the flip side some farms that can direct market to their customers were able to adopt quickly and take advantage of customer demand.”

Of the 65% of farms reporting negative outcomes due to the pandemic, 28% characterized the impact as very negative. Just 8% of farms reported positive or very positive outcomes, many of which were related to increased demand at roadside stands or farmers markets.

Looking at specific business impacts, 35% of farms reported market disruption, 43% lost sales, 37% had cash flow issues, 19% lost restaurant sales, 9 % had transportation issues, 7% supply issues and 9% labor issues. In addition to the direct impact on farmers, the pandemic has also disrupted spending on equipment vendors and planned construction projects or expansions. 35% of farms surveyed said that vendor spending has been an issue. Supply chains for a wide range of farming and agricultural equipment have been disrupted, and some farms have had to cancel construction plans in 2020.

“In New York state, 50% of what we produce goes to institutions, whether it be schools, restaurants, hospitals, things like that,” said Jeff Williams, NYFB public policy director. “Once things like schools and restaurants closed down, that is where we saw a real impact on the farm economy.”

The dairy farming industry has been one area of particular concern, with supply chain disruptions and milk prices being impacted during the early months of the pandemic. Fisher, a dairy farmer by trade, and Kim Skellie of Wayne County offered some perspective on these specific issues.

“For me, during the pandemic probably my biggest concern hasn’t been exactly the price of milk or shipping concerns, we deal with those things routinely, it is the health and safety of our employees and our family,” Fisher said. Skellie noted that farmers had seen about a 10 % drop in demand for dairy products during the peak of the pandemic, but said that problems like milk dumping have mostly tapered off.

Farms specializing in fruit and vegetable agriculture have had their own set of challenges to face this summer, with difficult weather also causing headaches in addition to COVID-19. Sarah Dressel Nickels of Dressel Farms in the Hudson Valley and Jim Bittner of Bittner-Singer Orchards in Niagara County shared their experiences with those in attendance.

“Big thing is worker training,” Bittner said. “Trying to educate the workers that you have to take this seriously at the farm and at home, that is another issue. You can do everything at the farm, at the workplace, but if you go home and have parties or have a lot of people over it sort of negates the safety things you are doing at the place of employment.”

Bittner and Dressel Nickels both mentioned this summer’s hot and dry weather, as well sa late-season freezes as problems during this growing season. Both also addressed the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program, which allows farms to employ foreign nationals during busier times of the year. “We had some H-2A workers come in just before COVID got complicated back in March,” Bittner said. “They came from Mexico, when they got here they were isolated for 14 days. They did work, but they worked in a separate group, didn’t mingle with the other workers for two weeks. After that they were brought in with the rest of the workers.”

All of the farmers in attendance explained that they have taken extra health and safety precautions during the pandemic when necessary, such as sanitizing common areas and encouraging any ill workers to remain home. Bill Zalakar addressed farming issues specific to Long Island, explaining that the area’s greenhouse industry was hit especially hard during the early weeks of the pandemic. Long Island farmers have also been delaying with a heavy drop in demand from restaurants in the New York City area.

In discussing solutions to these COVID-19 problems, many in attendance expressed a desire to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of farmers, who are already in a naturally stressful profession. Federal assistance given to farming organizations and resources, such as the Cornell Cooperative Extension and nyfarmnet.org, will be important to the success of the industry moving forward.

“Unpredictability comes with farming, look no farther than the weather,” Fisher said. “This year we are dealing with an exceptionally hot summer and drought conditions for much of the state. All this underscores the need to continue to invest in our food system while making health and safety a priority.”

WIN FOR DIARY

The national dairy industry did receive some positive news last week despite ongoing COVID-19 concerns when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reaffirmed the importance of dairy in a healthy diet.

“The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee today restated what consumers already know, that regular dairy consumption offers essential nutrition that nourishes people throughout their lives,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation “Across different types of diets and throughout all stages of life, dairy products provide the nutrients people need to be healthy.”

The report concluded that 88% of Americans are falling short of dairy recommendations in their diet, including 79% of 9-13 year-olds.

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