Ag and COVID-19 (2)

Bruce Ruddenklau, left, and wife, Helle, with a combine at their farm near Amity, Ore.

SALEM — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order Monday establishing legally enforceable restrictions on public activity and ordering “non-essential” businesses to close.

Meanwhile, agriculture is open for business. Farmers and farmworkers across the West are doing field work, planting crops and getting ready for another growing season, and suppliers are staying busy keeping up with their needs for seed, fertilizer and equipment.

“For agriculture itself — that is, the farmers producing the crops — it’s mostly business as usual,” said Jeff Freeman, sales and marketing director for Marion Ag Services, a supplier of fertilizer and other agricultural products. “Food is important, so farming will go on.”

For some farm industries, the COVID-19 virus outbreak has actually increased revenue.

Wheat, for example, is in high demand. Shoppers stockpiling staples such as flour have triggered an “unprecedented” demand, according to the Wheat Foods Council.

Potato prices have also skyrocketed as consumers stocked up. The price of 10-pound bags of Idaho Burbanks and Norkotahs has increased from $11 to $17 in the past week — a 54% jump, according to data collected by United Potato Growers of Idaho.

“We see so many foods selling at unheard-of amounts,” said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission. “Berry processing alone — it’s crazy. Just crazy. It’s hard to find enough Grade A fruit out there to meet the demand. Costco alone looks like the apocalypse hit.”

Some farmers are yet to see any major changes.

Helle Ruddenklau, a farmer near Amity, Ore., and former president of Oregon Women for Agriculture, said she and her husband, Bruce, grow most of their crops under contract.

But farmers and others are also worried that a prolonged COVID-19-related shutdown could ultimately hit them. No reliable estimates of how long the shutdown will last in the U.S. have been offered, although officials in China and South Korea report that they have likely already seen the worst of the outbreak.

Ruddenklau, who also grows grass seed, worried that a prolonged shutdown could ultimately cause that market to nose-dive if the housing market goes into a slump.

“People might not have the income to spend on house lawns,” she said. “It’s not an essential. The grass seed market took a downturn during the last recession, and it probably will again.”

Ostlund, who is also administrator of Grass Seed USA, offered an optimistic prediction for that commodity.

“I expect the market for seed for forage will still be good,” he said. “And if golf courses stay open in the next few months, that’s still a significant source of income for grass seed suppliers.”

Ruddenklau said farm supply companies will still be busy.

“As farmers, we need our suppliers,” she said.

Freeman of Marion Ag Products said he anticipates businesses connected to farming will stay open: feed stores, equipment providers, suppliers of seed and fertilizer.

“I think we’re really fortunate that, given this bad situation, our organization still has the ability to give customers the tools they need to grow their crops,” he said. “I just hope capital will remain available to farmers. We’re OK now, but if this goes on for months, everything could change.”

He and others predicted that a prolonged shutdown in the general economy could impact everyone, including farmers.

“Looking down the road, I think this will hurt a lot of sectors of agriculture,” Freeman said.

Although agricultural businesses are staying open, said Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, the long-term impact of the virus will likely hit the farm economy hard.

“At least agriculture is still open,” he said. “But there’s a huge distinction between continuing to operate versus operating profitably.”

Dillon also said niche sectors of agriculture will likely be impacted: agritourism, farmers markets, on-farm direct sales, flower growers and farms selling primarily to restaurants.

But he also said that if anyone can get through the challenges ahead, farmers can.

He recalled that several dozen Oregon farms were recently honored as sesquicentennial farms for staying in business 150 years.

“They’ve seen two world wars, global depression, 18 percent interest rates and more,” he said. “There’s a perseverance and ingenuity in agricultural people to work through hard times like this. But we might not come out the same.”

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