Duane Rehmeyer has a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where, as of mid-week, there were 40 cases of the COVID-19 virus. Rehmeyer is an egg producer that sells directly to restaurants and grocery stores and offers a self-serve market.
He said he has been forced to shift things and has depended on social media to help him make up losses after restaurants and bars were closed in the state.
“All of our restaurant customers are closed, so we’ve scrambled to move eggs to grocery stores and increase farm market sales. (I had) no idea (of) the reach of Facebook; what a response from the community,” Rehmeyer said.
The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic on March 11, acknowledging that it will probably spread to most countries around the globe. For most people, the new COVID-19 virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Greg Hostetler operates a dairy farm in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, and said the school closure statewide hurts dairy because all of the pre-ordered milk will go to waste.
“Schools are a big potential market,” Hostetler said, which is now lost for the time being.
Americans of all ages and across all states have been asked to mostly stay home, to socially distance from other people, and to avoid being in large groups of more than 20 people. The purpose of the “self-quarantine,” even for healthy people, is to slow the spread of the virus, which threatens to overwhelm the hospital system as it did in China and Italy this month with massive need. Ventilators and hospital beds are in extreme shortage if too many people are severely ill with COVID-19-induced lung and breathing problems at the same time, and in need of treatment all at once.
Though local grocery stores are “inundated” with panicked shoppers currently, Hostetler said he wonders if it will truly help farmers. The toilet paper hoarding, he said, may seem to help those in forestry, but as with many non-perishable items, it could go unused and simply be saved for later.
Musser Farms is located in Bellefonte, Centre County, Pennsylvania. There, farmer Rodney Musser raises free-range, grass-finished beef and sells farm products via a CSA, or community supported agriculture program, on the farm. Other farmers in his area supply eggs, pork products, honey, eggs, cheese, baked and canned goods to the CSA.
Musser said that the week Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf made the decision to close schools, starting March 16, along with most businesses, caused an increase in business for his farm as folks were running to get stocked up.
Sales for this current week, he said, have returned to normal levels.
Like many, Musser said, “We are concerned about future sales as the virus becomes more widespread.”
Jason Nailor milks dairy cows on his farm in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.
“One of the negative affects of the virus is the extreme market volatility,” Nailor said. “We had just started to make a turn out of the basement of the milk pricing scale, and prices plummeted again this week.”
“On the flip side, when I checked them today, that (drop) had already started to recover,” he said. “Being that our milk price is based on a monthly average, this momentary dip hopefully won’t hurt too much. I don’t see a supply chain interruption unless the processing plants or trucking companies experience a high volume of sick staff. Farmers will continue to do our part.”
Eric Brubaker of McAlisterville, Juniata County, Pennsylvania, raises beef, broiler chickens and grain.
Brubaker said that “commodity prices have really dropped, so if we were to sell grain or livestock right now, we would definitely receive a lower price. We have our grain in storage, so we wait and, hopefully, prices will recover once everything returns to more normal.”
Brubaker and his brother own and operate a farm supply store, Double B Farm Supply, in town as well.
“Our store is considered in the ‘essential’ category, so we will be staying open,” he said. “We are getting into our busiest time of year as farmers are getting their inputs in preparation for planting and spraying.”
Klein Farms Dairy and Creamery in Easton, Northampton County, Pennsylvania, is seeing a buzz of activity. Spokesperson and employee Nina Corpora said that many grocery stores are running out of milk, meats and eggs. The Kleins’ dairy business is able to provide those things for sale at their farm.
Northampton County has had two deaths from the COVID-19 virus this month and 23 confirmed cases as of midweek. Corpora said many customers are visiting the farm with masks and gloves, and keeping their distance from others.
Mitchell’s Farm in Snyder County, Pennsylvania, is a produce farm. Jason Mitchell said the closure of nonessential businesses could impact some farms, including “our ability to prepare for planting season,” he said.
Mitchell said the farming community can handle this pandemic.
“The farming community is very familiar with market uncertainties, and if anyone will adapt to difficult times, it’s the farmer,” he said.
Dan Smith operates Smith Farms, a small farm that raises cage-free chickens and other diversified products such as pastured broilers, ducks and guinea fowl, hydroponic lettuce and more in Juniata County, Pennsylvania.
“I’m preparing for spring planting (replacing some tillage parts) and there are so many supply-chain questions,” Smith said. “I don’t know if I can get my parts. I was planning on going to an auction for some equipment, but I’m guessing that will be canceled. I’m tiny and just need a couple of things, but I’m wondering how all of this will unfold. As far as the eggs, we’re prepared to not have income from sales — either due to customers not coming at all, or not having the ability to pay — until life returns to normal. On the flip side, (we’re) happy to have farm-raised pork, sweet corn, root cellar stocked with potatoes and apples, and eggs, all in abundance. We may become cash-insecure, but not food-insecure.”
Nailor said having the children home from school has been good for farming.
“A benefit I have seen is the influx in labor help. With the kids out of school, my daughters and the 4-H kids that have animals at my farm have been helping get a lot of things done around the farm. So that is very good news,” he said. “I feel we are ahead of ‘schedule’ if you want to call it that, where we normally are for this time of year. “
Rehmeyer said he is not lacking help, either.
“We use high schoolers for farm labor and they have made themselves available during the week to help with the extra carton packing we’re doing to keep up with store sales,” he said.
Many parents noted they are putting their children to work while school is closed. Projects around the farm will be completed for many, as school children fix and paint chicken houses/coops, learn to use machinery and clean up around the farm. Others are inside helping to cook and clean the house.
Shawna Weller’s family farm is a 60-plus robotic milking dairy in Elliottsburg, Perry County, Pennsylvania. Her father and grandmother run the farm while she and her fiancé help.
“We both have off-the-farm jobs and both are considered essential, so neither of us are ‘off work,’” she said. “If we were, I can guarantee we would pretty much be living at the farm. However, I work for a local bank and I am continuing to work (there) remotely. I am working every day to help our customers — both farmers and small business owners — through this difficult time.”
Judi Radel of Yeehaw Farm in Cove, Perry County, is taking this pandemic in stride.
She and her husband operate an organic, grassfed farm that sells dairy, meats and diversified products.
“I, personally, think farming is typically a very isolated industry, in which farmers have to seek out social events to keep ever-present in our communities anyway,” she said. “As farmers, we could easily stay confined to our farms without ever leaving, if not for the ever-present constraints of simply trying to make a living and selling our goods. But honestly, with the invention of the internet, social media and online ordering, selling farm goods is (much) easier than ever before. Our animals still need to be tended and crops still need to get in the ground, because as farmers, one has to constantly inhabit a sense of positivity. What other reason would be the point of planting fall crops for a spring/summer nine months out, if not always looking for in the future?”