The spread of COVID-19 forced the closure or curtailment of many sectors of the economy last spring and sent shockwaves through all facets of agriculture.
Restaurants and other venues were shut down, and many Americans shifted their eating habits to cook-in or take-out.
Agricultural supply chains were disrupted as processors scrambled to switch from foodservice sales to retail. Some commodity contracts were cut back only to be reinstated as the year progressed. Others were canceled.
Caught in the middle were farmers. Their markets shifted or shrank. Milk had to be dumped because there was no longer a buyer for it. The supply of cattle and other livestock was backed up as meat processors struggled to stay open amid the spreading pandemic. Nearly every segment of agriculture experienced some level of turbulence.
And prices gyrated. As price-takers, farmers were at the whim of a marketplace that was transforming and reinventing itself on the fly.
But farmers are also resourceful. Many adapted to the changing marketplace and found new customers.
And with the help of federal programs that protected their bottom line, most farmers made it through the darkest hours of the pandemic.
A year later, we talked with Northwest farmers and farmworkers about their experiences during those times. They were all different, but their reactions can be summed up in one sentence: “I’m still here.”
Jim Simnitt, co-owner of Simnitt Nursery in Canby, Ore.
When COVID-19 hit last March, Jim Simnitt, 42, said his nursery was “dead smack in the middle of shipping.”
Simnitt Nursery is a second-generation, 80-acre wholesale nursery specializing in rhododendrons and Pieris. The nursery ships to 35 states.
When the pandemic first jolted the market, buyers across the nation told Simnitt to halt shipments for two weeks.
“I was nervous I’d miss that flowering time, that narrow window,” said Simnitt.
It was a bumpy spring. Some buyers canceled orders. Simnitt separated trucks and spaced people out, slowing production-per-hour 15%.
“I was still nervous going through April,” said Simnitt.
But around May, things took a turn. People stuck at home redid their yards: gardens, lawns, new patios. Sales of Simnitt’s flowering shrubs took off.
“It ended up being a really good year,” Simnitt said.
But he still had to change his business model. In previous years, customers toured his nursery, handling plants. During COVID-19, he offered virtual tours using his cell phone.
“I’m really looking forward to getting back to seeing people in person,” he said.
Aaron Nichols, co-owner of Stoneboat Farm in Hillsboro, Ore.
Pre-pandemic, restaurants made up about 57% of sales for Stoneboat Farm, a small vegetable and turkey farm in Hillsboro.
Then COVID-19 struck.
“Those first couple of weeks, we were really nervous because we knew restaurants were closing,” said Aaron Nichols, 37.
His team opted to expand the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA.
It wasn’t easy. Because of the home gardening boom, seeds were hard to come by. The farm planted what it could, then purchased supplementary vegetables from other farms.
The model was a triumph. In 2019, the farm had sold 150 CSA shares. In 2020, that leaped to 350 shares. This year, Nichols predicts he’ll sell 425 shares.
“People wanted to be part of this, to eat local,” he said. “It felt and still feels like a community of people who care about each other, care about us.”
Stoneboat Farm also saw a $10,000 increase in sales at farmers markets during 2020.
Because the farm had numerous pandemic-related expenses, Nichols said 2020’s bottom line was slightly worse than 2019’s.
But overall, he said, he’s excited about direct-to-consumer market growth.
Jesus Limon, owner of J&M Orchards Inc. in Wenatchee and Quincy, Wash.
The main impact of coronavirus hit home at Jesus Limon’s farm at the worst possible time last year: harvest.
Limon, 63, owns a small orchard company with about 130 acres of apples and cherries across Wenatchee and Quincy.
For months, Limon said, he had done everything he could to prevent an outbreak: requiring masks, spacing out H-2A workers, putting up barriers between bunk beds, installing sanitation stations.
“Cleaning, disinfectants, masks, you name it — it got really expensive,” he said. “I don’t think hardly anybody’s making money right now farming. It seems all the rules from all the agencies keep squeezing us.”
Late summer, several workers in one housing unit tested positive for COVID-19. Limon worked with the local health department and paid the workers to quarantine for two weeks.
Fortunately, workers outside that unit didn’t catch the virus and kept picking, but because several were quarantined, Limon left nearly 500 bins of apples on his trees.
“What do you do?” he said. “Everybody’s facing it.”
Despite challenges, Limon said he’s hopeful he’ll soon be able to get his workers vaccinated.
Hilary Jensen, owner of The Patch in Ellensburg, Wash.
The pandemic unleashed a surprisingly good season for Central Washington agritourism operator Hilary Jensen.
Shortly before the fall fun was to begin, the governor’s office came down with strict rules. The state’s agritourism industry mobilized and convinced the governor’s office to relax the rules.
As a result, most activities were allowed — with masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing. Jensen, who operates The Patch in Ellensburg, said attendance increased.
“People were so hungry for something normal,” she said. “The gratitude from the guests was palatable. They were so grateful to have that slice of normalcy.”
Revenue went up, but so did expenses. Gloves that normally cost $5 a box were going for $60. The season’s profitability was saved by a $5,000 grant from federal relief funds to buy personal protection equipment.
“We were prepared for the worst, but for the most part it was all for the best,” Jensen said. “I really do think it was a good year. We were just as grateful as our guests.
“We didn’t have a single case of COVID traced to us,” she said. “We did it before, so we should be allowed to do it again.”
Nick Blanksma, a farmer near Hammett, Idaho
Nick Blanskma and his partners were planting potatoes for processing when COVID-19 shutdowns slammed the market.
They stuck to their acreage target.
“It’s very hard when you have already put so much time, money and effort into the upcoming crop to change course,” said Blanskma. “There was no going back, with seed on hand and potatoes in the ground.”
Demand shifted from foodservice to retail and food banks as many people worked from home or were laid off. Potatoes grown for one purpose served another. Federal relief plans emerged. Restaurants expanded take-out service. Some processors bought more potatoes after first cutting their contracted acreage.
“There was so much going on, and it was so crazy,” Blanksma said. “We were out of the loop as far as how the product got to its final destination. Fortunately, our (processor) customer was able to work through the logistical problems and take all of our finished product.”
“We are a tough industry,” Blanksma said. “We will come out of this, but it will be turbulent for at least two years.”
Paul Skeen, a farmer near Nyssa, Ore.
Paul Skeen said that by the end of March 2020, planting in the large southeastern Oregon-southwestern Idaho growing region was wrapping up — just as processors were reducing their contracted acreage.
Some farmers produced fewer onions. Some processors bought more as 2020 unfolded.
“When it hit, it just shut the large onion down,” Skeen said of the pandemic.
The region is known for growing big onions, and their main customers, foodservice outlets, slashed demand.
Skeen said a Payroll Protection Program loan was “a life-saver in keeping my employees employed all winter.”
At the same time, transportation “has been a problem throughout the West, he said. Warmer weather may bring more types of trucks, such as flatbeds, into the mix.
Though onion prices increased, so did production costs.
“I’m an old man; I’ll make it,” said Skeen, 67. “There’s a lot of young kids who need better prices to stay afloat.”
Cevin Jones, a feedlot owner near Eden, Idaho
Idaho feedlot owner Cevin Jones had one thing to say about how he’s fairing after a year of the pandemic.
“I’m still here,” he said.
Jones, who operates Intermountain Beef in Eden northeast of Twin Falls, had just started his term as chairman of the U.S. Meat Export Federation when the pandemic hit. That put the kibosh on his year of international travel to build trade relationships.
At home, cattle markets tanked and cattle backed up in the pipeline across the country. Fortunately, he had a meatpacker who didn’t lower the price it paid for his cattle.
“We worked through it together in a cooperative way,” he said.
His operation did better than most feedlots outside the area. But the pandemic did have impacts, he said.
“There were some ups and downs — and a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
He was infected with COVID-19 and was down for two weeks. His office manager and two other employees also contracted the virus.
“I was worried about the day half the crew would get it,” he said.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but the pandemic affected employee morale, he said.
Beef demand rebounded quickly, but the industry is still working through the backlog of cattle. That’s holding down prices, which is frustrating. Strong beef demand and surging exports should be supporting $120 per hundredweight for fat cattle, but they’re only bringing about $114, he said.
As for cow-calf producers, most don’t market calves in the spring. But the pandemic depressed prices industrywide, and they probably didn’t do so well last fall when they did sell, he said.
Willie Bokma, dairy farmer, Twin Falls, Idaho
Dairy farmers in southern Idaho were not immune to the milk dumping and crashing prices that also took place across the country early in the pandemic.
“The entire COVID thing cost us a lot of money,” said Willie Bokma, a Twin Falls dairy farmer.
Bokma is a member of Magic Valley Quality Milk marketing cooperative, which rotated dumping among its members in the first few months of the pandemic. Milk checks were thin, and overbase production sold for next to nothing, he said.
“It was awful. It was catastrophic,” he said.
His share of the pain was three days worth of dumped milk, about 300,000 pounds and $40,000.
“If we hadn’t had government payments, it would have been terrible. That saved our bacon,” he said.
He had also locked in some milk production under the Dairy Revenue Protection program, which helped tremendously, he said.
Producers who didn’t sign up for government programs, such as DRP or Dairy Margin Coverage, were in a tough spot. And he feels bad for those who sold out before the government assistance programs kicked in, he said.
One year later, consolidation in Idaho’s dairy industry is rampant, he said.
“That’s kind of scary … very disconcerting,” he said.
Neither he nor any of his employees contracted the virus as far as he knows. But the employee situation has been tough in terms of worker availability, and he’s hoping the U.S. Senate will pass an immigration reform bill, he said.
The pandemic turned things upside down and brought new threats farmers hadn’t imagined.
“We’re used to the fear now,” he said.
Mike Carstensen, a farmer in Lincoln County, Wash.
The pandemic didn’t change much for wheat growers, farmer Mike Carstensen said.
Carstensen farms roughly 5,000 acres in northwest Lincoln County and is chairman of the Washington Grain Commission board of directors.
“Most operations are basically one guy doing the work,” Carstensen said. “We don’t hire labor except at harvest. So not much different. Any social activities or farm meetings are virtual and in no way are they as good as in person.”
Carstensen said he’s had to begin scheduling ahead to get seed and parts. Parts are limited because of supply chain issues due to COVID, he said. Seed houses are open but because of limited contact it’s best to arrange a visit beforehand.
Carstensen said he was most concerned about the pandemic’s effect on the overall economy and people out of work, and students not attending schools in person.
In the year ahead, Carstensen is wary of increasing input costs and input supply slowdowns for growers.
He’s optimistic that more vaccinations will allow more normal, in-person interactions, including meetings with overseas customers.
“We need to get back to the in-person relationships,” he said. “Our customers are our friends and we value their relationships.”
Julio Gutierrez, near Pasco, Wash.
While COVID-19 restrictions rocked the U.S. economy in 2020, agriculture chugged along as an essential business, with legions of migrant and seasonal laborers working to keep homebound Americans fed.
Julio Gutierrez spent the early days of the pandemic in April and May harvesting asparagus at Larsen Farms near Pasco, Wash. At first, he said news of the virus had him scared.
“Some people were dying of it, and some people were getting really sick,” Gutierrez said of the news reports about COVID-19.
However, Gutierrez, 33, said he needed to work to support his wife and three kids. A native of Sinaloa, Mexico, Gutierrez is an experienced farmworker who has spent nine years at Larsen Farms, splitting his time between hand-cutting rows of asparagus and running the scale house.
Last year was unlike any other, Gutierrez said in Spanish. His crew boss, Hector Lopez, assisted in translation.
“When the pandemic hit, it kind of changed things,” Gutierrez said. “I would just take all the precautions that were in the news, and try not go out as much as I used to.”
On the farm, that meant wearing a mask and frequently sanitizing his hands. Larsen Farms has approximately 130 workers harvesting up to 800 pounds of asparagus a day.
Lopez said the workers are spread out in the fields, which made it easier for them to maintain 6 feet of social distance versus working side-by-side in a warehouse.
“(Harvest) ran normal,” Lopez said. “Everybody would show up to work. They would just take the precautions.”
Gutierrez said he had no problems finding work. After asparagus season, he went on to his other normal jobs picking cherries and processing potatoes at other farms in southeast Washington.
He said he felt safe working on the farms, and has since received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. He will receive his second dose this month.
“I learned that by taking care of myself, and taking the precautions, I would be OK,” Gutierrez said.