CHARLTON, N.Y. — Agritourism generates more than 75% of Ellms Family Farm’s income as up to 2,000 people per day visit the site, filled with fun children’s activities, on busy autumn weekends.
The season is still six months away, but owner Chip Ellms is already feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which poses a major threat to all segments of the U.S. agriculture economy.
If a ban on public gatherings isn’t lifted, the farm simply won’t open this fall, which would eliminate more than 160 seasonal, part-time jobs.
“That’s a real shot to the local economy,” Ellms said. “Planning is totally on hold. Unless something changes we aren’t going to spend any money on improvements.”
His Saratoga County destination adds new features every year in an ongoing effort to provide farm-based, family entertainment. Highlights run the gamut from a Moo-Moo Train to a mechanical chicken show and panning for gold. Last year, a low ropes course and five zip lines were installed.
Recently, Ellms took an intensive training course from the Disney Institute in Florida, and tries to pattern his business after the Disney model, with close attention to all aspects of customer satisfaction.
With that in mind, he transformed an historic barn into a beautiful event space for weddings and parties. But that element of his business, too, could be greatly affected by coronavirus.
“That is something we’re worried about because events are a bonus on top of our main business,” Ellms said.
Elsewhere, dairy farms are taking special pains to keep workers safe because cows must be fed and milked no matter what happens.
“These are big issues we’re all going to have to work through together,” said Willard Peck, of Welcome Stock Farm in Northumberland. “We’re monitoring the health of our employees very closely, informing them about precautions the Health Department suggests. You have to be very vigilant with your hygiene.”
The New York State Department of Health has a coronavirus website with English and Spanish posters for preventing infection. This website can be found at bit.ly/NYCoronavirus
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides clear guidance about preventing infection in both English and Spanish. They also provide a number of printable factsheets and posters in English and Spanish suitable for use in the workplace. This website can be found at bit.ly/COVIDCDC
The dairy industry had just started to see a roughly $1-per-hundredweight price increase over 2019 levels, bringing relief to producers who had suffered through four years of low prices.
“But this economic slowdown is driving down consumption,” Peck said. “Now all the milk futures are back to 2019 or lower.”
The 1.1 million pupil New York City school system, one of the country’s largest purchasers of food, has been closed along with many other districts across the state, essentially eliminating a market for milk and many other farm products.
“The biggest concern, though, may be around labor, which our farmers shared with lawmakers during their recent lobby trip to Washington, D.C. before Capitol offices closed,” said Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau spokesman. “Most of the workers are coming from countries, primarily Mexico and in Central America and the Caribbean, that currently do not have travel restrictions in place. However, should that situation change or if consulates that process guest worker visas close, it could make things much more difficult. We have encouraged our members to consider alternative options, if possible, and will continue to work with lawmakers and governmental agencies to assess the situation and needs of our farmers.”
On another front, Maple Open House Weekends, a much anticipated March activity, have been canceled across New York.
“We had hoped to remain open to the public to continue that tradition for our community, but what is happening right now is bigger than any one person or business,” the New York Maple Producers Association said in a statement.
However, producers are still making syrup and some individual locations might be open to small groups. People are asked to contact sugarmakers directly before visiting. For information go to mapleweekend.com or email email@example.com or call 315-877-5795.
As of March 17, all 50 of GrowNYC’s open-air Greenmarket locations were operating in metropolitan New York, which supports 250 regional farms.
“Eighty-five percent of our farms report that they would not be in business if not for the ability to sell directly to New York City shoppers,” the GrowNYC website says.
But many safety precautions have been adopted such as increasing the distance between market stands, no food sampling and requiring workers who handle credit/debit cards to wear protective gloves. In addition, activities such as volunteer orientations, field trips and tours, farmer assistance training, and school garden classes have been canceled or postponed.
Smaller winter markets in places such as Saratoga Springs have temporarily closed.
Moxie Ridge Farm & Creamery owner Lee Hennessy travels 200 miles from Washington County, northeast of Albany, to take goat’s milk cheese, eggs and pork to a Greenmarket in Union Square, Manhattan, each Friday. This accounts for more than 80% of the three-year-old farm’s revenue stream.
“Since I only just started wholesale, almost all my income comes from direct-to-consumer sales, specifically through farmers markets, and the impact (of COVID-19) is potentially huge,” Hennessy said. “My Saratoga market is closed this week and will be re-evaluating weekly. My Union Square market is still open. In anticipation of, frankly, pretty devastating hits via market sales, I’m pivoting to direct delivery, shifting production to more aged cheeses, pausing staffing, putting more focus on my soap brand, which can easily be sold online and shipped, and generally planning on stepping up my social media in order to stay visible to my customers.”
“Anyone that sells at a farmers market knows how big an impact something as simple as the weather can have on weekly revenue, so something huge like a pandemic with people self-isolating takes a huge toll, even when markets are open,” Hennessy said.
Moxie Ridge Farm has more than 50 registered Alpine goats.
“This is happening during kidding season, which is my busiest time of year on the farm side and is quite literally life and death for my herd so I had to miss my New York City market this week,” Hennessy said. “Normally missing one market in the month of March doesn’t make or break anything, but I’m worried that it may have been my last chance to reach my city customers before things take a turn for the worse. This past week, a farmer friend of mine had one of their best markets ever in New York City with tons of people stocking up on his frozen meats.”
But overall, fewer people are turning out.
“I think an interest in local food is taking a back burner for most people during the panic-buying grocery store rush that we’re seeing now,” Hennessy said. “I think it’s up to us as farmers to speak up, stay relevant, and work to accommodate our customers the best we can. Strangely, the silver lining to this could end up being an even closer customer-farmer relationship as many of us are quickly pivoting to a direct delivery system. Some people are using systems like Door Dash, some are doing their own deliveries, some are using larger logistics operations specifically for farms.”
Cornell Cooperative Extension has circulated Employer Action Steps for farm owners. They are:
• Talk with your employees about coronavirus, how it spreads, and how to prevent getting infected.
• Print the CDC factsheets and posters, post in your workplace and employee housing facilities.
• Provide guidance to help employees clean and disinfect employer-provided housing. Follow up with employees and manage the process to be sure that this happens. Set up a regular weekly and daily schedule for cleaning. CDC guidance for cleaning homes can be found at tinyurl.com/wbg7r3u
• Clean and disinfect your workplace. The employee breakroom and bathroom are great places for virus to be transmitted. Clean and disinfect any areas where employees congregate or routinely touch items such as doorknobs and computer keyboards. Set up daily and weekly cleaning schedules.
• Provide cleaning supplies such as cleaning solutions, buckets, mops and brushes for cleaning at work and for those living in employer-provided housing. A CDC list of approved antimicrobial cleaning products can be found at tinyurl.com/unpxrc9
• Review your sick leave policy. The first advice for people who are sick is to stay home except to get medical care. Do you provide paid sick leave for your employees? If you do not, will employees feel financially obligated to come to work even if they are sick?
• Communicate with employees that they should stay home if they are sick. Employees sometimes come to work believing they will face punishment or firing if they miss work. Be sure your employees understand that their health and that of their co-workers comes first. Communicate and make a plan to cover for sick employees.
• Prepare your disaster contingency plan. What will you do if 50% of your employees become sick and unable to work? Are there neighboring farms who might be able to share resources in an emergency? Who will manage for a few weeks if you or another key manager are unable to leave your house or are hospitalized?
Cornell provides the Extension Disaster Education Network to provide community education resources across the entire disaster cycle of preparedness, response, and recovery.
Penn State also provides farm disaster preparedness resources.
New York State Department urges a variety of health prevention tips to stop the spread of this and other respiratory viruses. They are:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.