by Courtney Llewellyn

More than 500 New York Farm Bureau members participated in a survey in mid-June that asked how the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of the New York economy affected both their bottom lines and their mental health. The survey found that 65% of the respondents’ farms and businesses were negatively impacted financially by COVID-19.

David Fisher, president of NYFB and a dairy farmer, stated, “Like everyone else, we’ve had to manage the best we can in a very difficult time. With the survey, we wanted to get a broader understanding of what the pandemic meant to everyone. No farm was untouched by the pandemic or the economic fallout. For me, the biggest concern was not the price of milk or shipping, but the health and safety of my team and my family.”

One striking result of the survey was the fact that 43% of farms reported lost sales, which in turn led to 37% of respondents saying they were facing cash flow issues. Another notable response stated that 47% have reduced spending with local vendors and suppliers or will do so in the future.

Kim Skellie of El-Vi Farms in Wayne County and a NYFB state director said he had 850 cows at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, but with schools and restaurants closing down, there quickly came a 10% drop in demand. His co-op asked for a cut in production. “We cut back about 12% on production,” he said. “We cut back on our labor force, laying off one employee and cutting hours for others.”

At Whittaker Farms in Broome County, Judi Whittaker said they had problems along the supply chain early on, getting the products they needed to operate – everything from hand sanitizer to gloves to repair parts for equipment. “It slowed down everything we need to do,” she said.

Tony LaPierre of Rusty Creek Farm in Clinton County and a NYFB state director is facing bigger issues. “I’m a fifth-generation dairy farmer, and we recently brought in the sixth generation,” he explained. “We were looking to increase production this year.” That included both growing the herd size and the physical presence of the farm. “The vendors we had made commitments to [contractors, dealers for equipment] – that money will no longer be there in local community if we can’t move forward,” LaPierre said. “We already have these financial obligations – how will we meet them? We appreciate the government programs out there, because they help in the short term, but the long-term issues are concerning.”

Fisher said farmers need to maintain their ability to market what they produce. He lauded programs like Nourish NY, which has already used $5 million to purchase and distribute New York-farmed goods.

“Nourish NY and milk giveaways have helped greatly reduce the need to dump milk,” Skellie added. “And we’ll know a lot more in a couple of weeks about schools reopening. We’re still hoping there will be school lunches, but it will take a while to fully correct [that demand for milk].”

Fisher noted that cheese prices are back up and very strong, but that all of the state’s farmers’ markets are “in dire jeopardy.”

Physical & Mental Health

A majority of farms – 84% – have a plan in place to train and assist their employees to mitigate the spread of the virus. Cornell University offers a variety of free resources for employee training.

However, physical health isn’t the only thing that needs to be addressed. A total of 46% of respondents said they were concerned about their mental health or that of someone they know.

“In a normal year, running a farm is extremely stressful,” noted Jeff Williams, NYFB public policy director. On top of this year’s late spring/late freezes, drought and hail, farmers have had to contend with the coronavirus. “Farmers need support in many ways, and mental health support is certainly one of the top ones.”

What are farmers doing to maintain mental health? “The biggest thing is that farmers have always been very supportive of their community and their fellow farmers,” Fisher said. “We reach out and talk to each other. We’ll continue to do that.”

A follow-up survey is already in the works. Until then, Fisher said, “All of this underscores the need to continue to invest in our food system while also making health and safety a priority. As the state and federal governments look toward potential budget cuts and additional COVID-19 assistance, agriculture must be a part of the discussion. It really does take all of us working together to have a strong, sustainable food system that supports the farm community and feeds yours.”