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, 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 … 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.

Jim Bittner of Bittner-Singer Orchards in Niagara County grows 400 acres of tree fruit. He noted how the market changed. Consumers now want smaller bagged apples, not the big apples he’s spent a career growing. However, he said direct marketing has been a bright spot and that U-pick has picked up. “But how do we make the transition from wholesale, which is what we are? We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. The orchards have been supplying more product to CSAs and changing their marketing channels.

“Our market sales increased dramatically,” said Sarah Dressel-Nikles of Dressel Farms in Ulster County. “The other farm markets around have told us the same thing.” Dressel Farms had to change the layout of their retail stand to ensure produce safety and social distancing. “The wholesale market has been tough, but having the direct market do well is really positive,” she added.

Downstate, similar problems were being faced. “We’ve been really affected on Long Island,” stated Bill Zalakar of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses and Long Island Farm Bureau president. “Agriculture in Suffolk County is one of the major factors of the economy. Goods are produced here and then shipped into New York City markets and restaurants. The weather is better here than in other parts of the state, and production was in high swing in late March and early April. We had a lot of unique, high value products, but no one knew where to turn.” Zalakar said the island’s usually strong greenhouse industry was “decimated,” with a 75% – 85% throw-out rate. “But things have kind of evened out now. Hopefully things will pick up and keep getting stronger for all of us.”

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. He added that while certain sectors are seeing growth again, all of the state’s ag 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.

“Working outside, we’re at an advantage – people are spread out,” Bittner said. “The big thing is worker training. You have to take this seriously. And you have to do this at the farm and at home.”

Worker training will be critical as farms near harvest time – and possibly bring in H-2A workers. Dressel-Nikles said that this year, they’ve had to do virtual inspections of employee housing. “We haven’t had problems yet, but there’s always a chance things will be slowed down,” she said.

Bittner had some workers from Mexico in early March. They worked separately from the local crew for two weeks so they could monitor their health. “We have a job order in for September and October, and the plan is the same,” he said. “We will push the need for them to stay home if they’re not feeling well. That’s a different mode of operation for farmers. We’re used to pushing through everything.”

However, physical health isn’t the only thing that needs to be addressed. A total of 46% of survey 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, growers 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.”