Massive disruptions spread across the economy this week as U.S. officials hastened to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Compared to other sectors, agricultural operations have not been affected as heavily by travel restrictions and business closures. Food, after all, is considered a critical need, and farmers generally work from home already.
Farmers, though, will likely lose revenue as markets tumble, demand wavers and uncertainty looms over the broader economy.
Here’s how the coronavirus, or COVID-19, has been affecting eight sectors of the Northeast’s ag economy.
On the Farm
The coronavirus hadn’t caused any disruptions on Monday at Graywood Farms in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania.
The milk inspector and insurance agent had both made visits, and feed deliveries were coming on time, said Lisa Graybeal, who runs the dairy with family members.
Only one vendor, which supplies leftover produce as livestock feed, said it was a little concerned. So many people had been rushing to the grocery store that its collections were down.
The concern wasn’t great enough to warrant changing the ration, Graybeal said.
Milk prices had already been falling when the coronavirus began spreading in the United States.
Among the disease control measures, statewide school closures have been announced for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and other states.
Schools are an important market for milk, and some schools are offering drive-thru or takeout options for low-income students. That could stem dairy farms’ losses, Graybeal said.
And with people staying home and not eating at restaurants, she speculated, maybe milk sales could even increase.
Milk, after all, is one of those items people buy right before they have to hunker down for an emergency.
“I call it the snowstorm effect,” Graybeal said.
While many people have been working from home, that won’t work for a dairy farm.
Graywood Farms has 13 full-time employees, but they should be able to follow recommendations for social distancing. They work outside, not crammed into an office building.
“We’re not amassing in groups of 50 or more,” Graybeal said.
Fortunately, the farm has enough hands that the work will get done even if a few have to stay home sick.
To Graybeal, the biggest questions are how grain prices will fare in the topsy-turvy market — and how a farmer is to work out a budget in times like these.
Indeed, the coronavirus has been hard on agricultural and financial markets.
The S&P 500 fell 12% on Monday, its worst day in more than 30 years, per The Associated Press. Large gains on the stock markets have been interspersed with bigger falls.
By Tuesday, more than 4,200 Americans had confirmed or presumed cases of coronavirus, and 75 had died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For most people, the disease causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. People who are elderly or have existing health problems are at the greatest risk.
All agricultural commodities have taken a hit as the coronavirus response has grown, dimming recent hopes for rising profits.
“The African swine fever was supposed to increase cattle prices, and the dairy market still had an optimistic outlook in the beginning of the year,” said Claudia Schmidt, a Penn State ag economist. “But then the outbreak of the coronavirus started disrupting the whole supply chain.”
Consumers have stockpiled groceries over the past two weeks, which could offset the short-term decline in demand for the food service sector.
But the rough weeks on the stock market and shakeup in consumer spending make a recession likely. Should that happen, food spending could also fall, rippling into ag markets, Schmidt said.
The economic turmoil also means consumers in export markets have eroding purchasing power, which will hurt demands for U.S. exports.
That’s a particular concern for China, the source of the coronavirus where 3,200 people have died. The outbreak could slow China’s ambitious plans to increase purchases of U.S. ag products, Schmidt said.
In another sign of trade disruption, USDA postponed a trade mission to North Africa that had been scheduled for this past week after coronavirus was found in Morocco, the host country.
Back at home, Cornell ag economist Andrew Novakovic is most concerned about complications in agricultural hauling.
“For fresh products, a transportation delay could result in product spoilage, or at least enough of a degradation in quality to have a price effect,” he said.
On Tuesday, Dairy Farmers of America said it was not experiencing any supply-chain disruptions, but it has business continuity plans in place just in case.
“Circumstances are changing quickly with consumer demand at retailers, and we’re working to ensure a consistent and secure supply of dairy for the health and benefit of consumers,” the cooperative said.
State and federal officials have encouraged nonessential businesses to close temporarily, though food businesses are allowed, even encouraged, to keep running.
“You have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule,” says a flyer tweeted by Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue.
But one trucking group said Pennsylvania had sent drivers the wrong message by relaxing hours-of-service requirements while also closing highway rest areas.
In response, the state Department of Transportation reopened 13 of its 30 rest stop parking lots on Thursday.
Novakovic is also concerned about the labor needs of farmers and food processors.
If a farmer or the farm’s workers all get sick, the farm could lose much-needed production.
An outbreak at a processing plant could be more harmful to the economy, though, “simply because there are a lot fewer processing plants than there are farmers,” Novakovic said.
The outlook for ag commodity markets depends on how long the shutdown orders are in place, but “the good news is that farmers are going to keep producing,” he said.
The restrictions on large and even medium-sized gatherings have kicked in during a busy month for farm meetings.
Penn State Extension has canceled all meetings through at least April 5, including many meetings offering continuing education credits for pesticide licenses.
If their licenses were to lapse, farmers would not be able to buy restricted-use pesticides like atrazine and paraquat, and they would have to retake the test to regain their privileges, said Jeff Graybill, an Extension educator who conducts a number of pesticide meetings.
Pennsylvania allows a one-year grace period to make up the needed credits, but applicators who are already in the grace period are cutting it close.
Maryland has already extended its grace period, and Pennsylvania is reviewing that option.
Graybill said he hopes to conduct some of the pesticide meetings at their scheduled time via videoconference and to have a make-up meeting once group functions are allowed again.
While the meeting restrictions are in place, Graybill isn’t allowed to be a guest speaker at any meetings that industry members may still be holding. For one pesticide meeting organized by a local farm store, he prepared handouts instead.
Extension educators are still available to help, Graybill said, but for the time being, farmers should expect their needs to be addressed over the phone and not via in-person visit.
With planting season around the corner, there’s a lot for farmers to be doing right now.
“Spring has not been put on hold,” Graybill said.
Public-health officials say limiting the size of gatherings and keeping public areas clean are top strategies for containing the spread of coronavirus.
Farmers markets have been taking those measures to heart.
Central Market in York, Pennsylvania, announced on March 17 that it was moving to grocery pickup and takeout only. Tables and chairs were removed to discourage people from lingering.
In Philadelphia, The Food Trust said its three winter markets were open last weekend “as our communities prepare for the possibility of extended time at home,” though food sampling was halted.
Newburyport Farmers Market in Massachusetts said it operated on March 15 with extra space between vendors. Customers were asked to stand 6 feet from the next person in line.
The suspension of dine-in services at restaurants across Ohio prompted some changes at Sirna’s Farm Fresh Kitchen in Auburn Township, outside Chagrin Falls.
The pizza shop is owned by a local farm family that supplies the shop with homegrown produce, sausage and bacon.
The restaurant is offering curbside takeout, and delivery is free through March 23, the first week of the slowdown.
“We are fortunate that our business is already equipped for this sort of business,” the owners said on Facebook.
Coronavirus has prompted the cancellation of most sporting events, including the NCAA basketball tournament with its iconic bracket.
Turner Dairy Farms, a Pittsburgh milk bottler, is not letting that setback derail its Milk Madness social media campaign, which fills a bracket with the company’s many flavored milks and allows customers to vote for their favorites.
On Tuesday, Chocolate Banana bested Orange Cream.
Verdant View Farm, an agritourism venue in Paradise, Pennsylvania, is tailoring its marketing pitch for a don’t-stand-too-close moment.
In a March 14 Facebook post, the farm touted private garden workshops and farm tours.
“Looking for something to do but also wanting to maintain social distancing? Spend time outdoors and come to the farm,” the post said.
The Barn at Ever Thine, a historic barn event venue in Fenelton, Pennsylvania, said its wedding season does not begin until May, by which time management hopes the virus will have run its course.
“We have no plans to cancel weddings or close our venue,” the business said March 15 on its Facebook page.
At The Mill, a chain of farm and feed supply stores in Pennsylvania and Maryland, store managers have been asked to focus on cleaning high-touch areas like door handles, counters and credit card machines.
With schools shut down, company agronomist Ben Hushon worries that some employees — and some drivers who resupply the stores — may need to stay home to care for their children.
The company has also been fielding calls from customers wondering whether the stores are still open.
The Mill finished its winter farmer meetings in February, but it has had to cancel three presentations on small-scale poultry production. Those gatherings would each have drawn 100 to 150 people.
For the company’s farmer customers, the coronavirus has piled on to the weather uncertainty that is always present, Hushon said.
Fortunately, the weather has been perfect recently, allowing farmers to spread fertilizer on small grains and fields that will be planted to corn.
And because temperatures have been mild, crops are further along than normal, Hushon said.
A few people are starting to think about switching some soybean acres to corn depending on the markets, but it’s still early, he said.
Late winter is also an important time for farmers to sign up for safety-net programs.
March 16 was the last day to schedule an appointment to enroll in Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage.
The USDA Farm Service Agency did not respond to questions about whether local offices were changing procedures in response to the virus.
MidAtlantic Farm Credit offices are still open, though staff who aren’t needed on site are working from home, said Kurt Fuchs, senior vice president of government affairs.
Farmers can still visit MidAtlantic’s offices, though to limit exposure to other people, Fuchs recommends clients call or email their loan officer when possible.
Coronavirus worries can add to a farmer’s stress and anxiety. For help with those challenges, Farm Credit customers can contact the organization’s member assistance program anonymously and for free. Counseling and others services are available 24/7 online and by phone.
Farm Credit aims to be there for its customers in both the good and bad times, Fuchs said.
Herbein + Co., an accounting firm that serves dairy and agribusiness clients, has also instituted new social distancing policies.
At the moment, clients are not allowed to enter the company’s offices, even to drop off their tax returns.
Clients are being asked to send in their tax information electronically, according to a March 16 letter from managing partner David Stonesifer.
Though President Donald Trump has floated the idea of extending tax filing deadlines, “Herbein plans to continue our efforts to prepare and file tax returns in a timely manner for as long as possible,” Stonesifer said.
Still, given this year’s extraordinary circumstances, many returns will need to be extended, he said.
The coronavirus restrictions are affecting farmers in other countries much the way they are in the United States.
Australia’s National Farmers Federation is particularly worried about sagging demand in its export markets, which absorb 75% of the country’s ag production.
China and South Korea, two of the nations hit hardest by COVID-19, are also top destinations for Aussie farm products.
Tony Mahar, the federation’s CEO, said he’s also worried about the availability of specialized packaging and seasonal harvest workers.
In Italy, site of a nationwide coronavirus quarantine, farm organization Coldiretti assured consumers that people would still be able to get food despite travel restrictions and labor shortages.
With bars and restaurants closed, almost 40% of Italians had stocked up on food, and online shopping and home delivery were growing, the organization said, according to a translation.
Reminiscent of U.S. agricultural promotions, Coldiretti also recommended consumers opt for food produced in Italy.
On the Road
Steve Groff has seen the coronavirus response unfold in his own way.
The Holtwood, Pennsylvania, farmer gives talks about cover crops and hemp production, and in the past two weeks he’s flown to events in Iowa and New Hampshire. The planes were roughly half full, he said.
His 90-room hotel in New Hampshire had just seven guests. He was usually the only customer in the hotel restaurant where he ate his meals.
“I was happy to be away from the crowds,” assuming there were any, he said.
Since the coronavirus has taken off, Groff said he has been more diligent about hand washing. At his recent meetings, no one shook hands.
“Just trying to be prudent is the name of the game,” he said.
Groff has had three speaking engagements canceled, which he understands. On Monday he was waiting to see if some events in the Lancaster area would still go on.
Groff thinks farmers might be better off than other workers. “Most of our jobs don’t depend on meeting and being in offices,” he said.
Farmers will be able to do their spring planting, though Groff expects input prices will go up.
“Until the new cases start to diminish and start to tail off, we just don’t know what we have here,” he said.
Groff hopes some good can come out of the current crisis, perhaps by helping people reconsider what’s most important in life.
“Let’s help each other, whatever that means,” he said.