While much of the Dan River Region adapts and all but shuts down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, local farmers — though concerned about and already seeing some of the negative effects of the global pandemic — must continue operating business as usual.
“These producers essentially have to, for the time being, pretend that there’s no downstream effect that’s going to be taking place months from now,” said Stephen Barts, a Pittsylvania County extension agent.
Even though there are a wide range of disruptions — including spikes and declines in demand, spiraling prices, labor shortages and broken supply chains — farmers have to continue with their regular preparations and operations.
“The agriculture community has not missed a beat during this whole crisis. … We are an essential industry that cannot miss a beat during any time of crisis,” said Robert Mills, a Pittsylvania County farmer who serves on multiple boards with the Virginia Farm Bureau.
The American Farm Bureau Federation laid out three primary concerns in a news release Wednesday: Labor shortages because of restrictions of the H-2A program — a federal program that allows farmers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis — issues with the supply chain at processors and packing plants, and market manipulation of prices.
For labor, many area farmers use the H-2A program. In 2017, 479 farm workers came to Pittsylvania County through the H-2A program, the second most of any Virginia locality, according to Virginia Employment Commission estimates.
Several countries have suspended routine immigrant visa services indefinitely, which will affect the H-2A workers who are scheduled to arrive in the next few months. While the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor have found some ways around this, including the hiring of H-2A workers who are already in the country who can’t return because of travel restrictions.
If additional restrictions are placed on the H-2A program, the labor issue could play out in two different scenarios depending on the timing, Barts said. If producers haven’t put their seeds in the ground, then they no longer need a larger workforce. On the other hand, if a farmer already has planted the crops, they will have to locate additional workers through other means.
“Part of the problem is we don’t really know what disruptions are going to place, we don’t know how severe those disruptions are going to be,” Barts said. “We’re in a position where it’s kind of a daily change in the circumstances.”
In terms of supply chains, the American Farm Bureau is concerned the processors and packing plants that help get the food from the producers to the consumers will be slowed down because of social distancing policies.
Nathan Hammock, a dairy farmer based in Museville, said he is having no problems getting his product out, but he is concerned there will be problems getting the supplies he needs, such as medicine, fertilizer and seed.
“The thing that concerns me the most is the supply chain coming to me,” he said. “Hopefully that won’t stop somewhere in a warehouse.”
Robert Pollok, who runs a certified seed business in Pittsylvania County, said he already is seeing shortages in masks and gloves he and his employees use to fight off dust and chemicals during their work. Despite his concerns about long-term demand and a lack of supply, he must continue planting as normal.
“It’s too far forward into the spring to be changing what we’re going to do,” he said.
Both stock prices and commodity prices have fallen drastically in recent weeks amid international concern over COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But as the stock markets have declined, prices for corn, soybeans and wheat — three popular commodities in Virginia — have spiraled as well, said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist with the Virginia Farm Bureau.
“With the drop in stocks, and you’ve got the issue with the low oil prices, this is all adding uncertainty, so it’s depressing prices,” he said.
But the numbers haven’t only declined; they’ve fluctuated in recent days, with a few days of gains Tuesday and Wednesday being followed by further declines Thursday.
“It’s a pendulum that’s swinging back and forth, so with that kind of volatility it’s hard to make a marketing decision,” Mills said.
The prices for most livestock also are taking a nosedive, said Cole Staudt, media relations specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“It’s a bloodbath,” Mills said of the price drops, particularly with cattle. “It is terrible. We are below break-even.”
“To be honest with you, we don’t know what to worry about,” added Bob Harris, a Pittsylvania County cattle and chicken farmer. “Everybody’s got a wait and see approach.”
Even as prices for many products are dropping, Hammock said demand has skyrocketed in recent weeks as milk flies off the shelves and the processors are “screaming for milk.”
“We’re still putting it out the door as hard as we can,” he said of his operation, which puts out more than 30 tons of milk per day.
Overall, however, demand for agricultural products has declined as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers have seen a major uptick in sales as people seek to stock their shelves during a period of social distancing, but large-scale buyers — such as schools, universities and sit-down restaurants — have closed their doors for the time being.
“That’s going to address some of the lost demand from institutional buyers … it’s not going to cover it all, but it is going to help some,” Banks said of the increase in retail demand.
Many farming markets are being forced to adjust their approach with the rules about social distancing. For instance, the Lynchburg Livestock Market, which hosts weekly cattle auctions, has reverted to streaming the auctions online and allowing buyers to bid virtually.
“The online thing could actually turn out to be a positive … once everything comes back to a sense of normality, that could open up another avenue of marketing,” said Chris Haskins, a Pittsylvania cattle farmer who usually sells his cattle through the Lynchburg program during April and May.
All of the market changes and disruptions just add another layer of uncertainty to a sector that already is dependent on many variables and has experienced increasing costs while commodity and product costs have stagnated or even declined, Staudt said.
“I think this is an unprecedented level of uncertainty for all sectors of the economy right now,” he wrote in an email. “Agriculture has just been hit with unprecedented levels of uncertainty for the last few years, and this is the latest hit to the industry.”
Due to environmental timelines and weather concerns, farmers can’t just delay planting crops for a few weeks or stop taking care of their animals. That could jeopardize the country’s entire food supply.
“We can’t stop working. We can’t shut our production down,” Pollok said.
Added Mills: “The next 60 days sets the stage for the next nine months.”
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.