Market and supply-chain disruptions, lost sales from restaurant and school closings, and cash-flow issues are among the many COVID-19 impacts plaguing New York agricultural producers from Niagara County to eastern Long Island.
These are among the chief findings of a recent New York Farm Bureau survey shared during a July 21 press conference, held via Zoom, with input from six producers from all regions of the state.
The study was conducted to help consumers understand what farmers are going through, and gain continued government funding for programs ranging from mental health issues to the Nourish NY initiative, which uses state money to supply food banks with goods purchased from New York farms.
“No farm was untouched by the pandemic or the economic fallout,” said David Fisher, Farm Bureau president and St. Lawrence County dairy farmer. “While farmers are doing their best to make sure food production doesn’t stop, we need to maintain the ability to process, distribute and market what we produce.”
More than 500 Farm Bureau members responded to the survey, conducted in mid-June. Forty-three percent said they’ve lost sales and almost half (47%) say they’ve reduced spending to local vendors and suppliers, such as equipment dealers and seed distributors, or will do so in the future.
“All the things that go into helping a farm, that’s where we saw a real impact,” said Jeff Williams, Farm Bureau director of public policy. “Once you start to minimize what you spend on vendors, that ripples through the entire rural economy.”
On the bright side, more than 80% of respondents said they’ve taken proactive steps to train and protect employees to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those that haven’t are mostly small family farms with no outside help.
And some growers say they’ve benefited financially during the crisis.
Sarah Dressel Nikles, of Ulster County in the Mid-Hudson Valley, said direct sales of apples at her retail market have increased dramatically from consumers coming upstate from New York City.
“Other farm markets have told us the same thing,” she said. “They’ve been extremely busy.”
Similarly, greenhouses have done a brisk business selling vegetable plants as many people have turned to backyard gardening during the pandemic, she said.
But Niagara County fruit grower Jim Bittner said there’s been a sudden shift in consumer demand for smaller bagged apples, for health and safety reasons, instead of larger ones.
“We’ve spent a career trying to grow large apples to get premium prices,” he said. “All of a sudden that’s not what the market wanted, so we took a hit there.”
And Bill Zalakar, of Suffolk County, said the Long Island greenhouse industry, which raises high-value specialty commodities, “was pretty much decimated” by the sudden closure of New York City schools and restaurants this spring.
“Nobody really knew where to turn,” he said.
Fisher said the diversity of New York agriculture highlights the need to support all types of farming, with whatever challenge they’re facing.
Judy Whittaker, of Whittaker Farms in Broome County, said her operation has experienced difficulty getting all kinds of supplies, from hand sanitizers to machinery parts.
“As the supply chain from dealer to us has slowed down, that’s slowed down everything we need to do such as getting repairs done and getting back out in the field to get crops done,” she said. “In some cases, we’re driving farther to pick up parts instead of waiting for them to be shipped to us.”
Wayne County dairyman Kim Skellie said his cooperative instituted a 12% cutback on production. He’s laid off one employee and reduced the hours of several others.
“So it’s kind of a tough economic pill to swallow,” Skellie said.
In addition, he’s greatly concerned about the possibility that schools won’t return to normal full schedules this fall.
“The plan to curb back production can gradually be undone in a few months depending on how it was cut back,” he said. “At this point we’re still hopeful there will be school lunches and a fair amount of demand coming from those areas. It’s probably going to take a while to fully correct itself.”
Fifth-generation dairy producer Tony LaPierre, of Clinton County in northeast New York, said the pandemic put his farm’s expansion plans on hold. He’s kind of between a rock and hard place because he’s already made financial commitments to vendors, but the unexpected decrease in production and revenues won’t support the project.
“Without price or markets, how are we going to navigate through these commitments? How are we going to change gears so we can meet our financial obligations?” he said.