Glei’s Orchards and Green­houses is employing several ways of keeping cus­tomers dis­tanced, including arrows taped onto the floor to direct foot traffic. Courtesy | Cloe Pennix

As Hillsdale-area farmers and pro­ducers try to nav­igate the eco­nomic impact of Michigan’s shutdown, they are looking for ways to weather the COVID-19 pan­demic until things return to normal.

Local pro­ducers are getting hit in a variety of ways as a result of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. Lim­i­ta­tions placed on busi­nesses and social dis­tancing guide­lines are forcing farmers to get by as best they can while the pan­demic con­tinues to spread throughout the state. Some farmers like Nathan Baker, co-owner of Border View Farms, con­tinue to market and sell the remainder of 2019’s crops. Other pro­ducers, including those who aren’t crop farmers, have been forced to nav­igate chal­lenges from the state lockdown in their own ways.

Crop prices tanked in March

Baker’s farm, located in Waldron, Michigan, grows about 3,300 acres of corn, soybean, and wheat. He, however, lives just over the state border, in Ohio. The sit­u­ation there pro­gressed much faster, Baker noted, as Gov. Mike DeWine shut down the state much earlier than other Midwest gov­ernors. Baker was caught off guard by how quickly things hap­pened, he said, but there has been no trouble trav­eling to his farm in Michigan.

The biggest impact to Border View Farm has been in the com­modity market, Baker said. 

“Prices tanked in the last month,” he said of March, “espe­cially for corn and soy­beans.”

In January and Feb­ruary, he said, the cash price of corn was $4 per bushel in Mont­pelier, Ohio, where he sells. That number was down to about $3.20 in April. That 80-cent dif­ference may not seem like much, but it has a big impact in the long run, he said. Mean­while, Baker said wheat prices aren’t ter­rible, but they are still fairly low. One concern, he said, is that crop prices have con­tinued to drop. 

The daily oper­a­tions on the farm, however, have not changed much, according to Baker.

“We tend to be fairly social-dis­tanced nor­mally,” he said.

One change is in getting sup­plies from local stores and equipment dealers. The storeroom is closed, for example, at GreenMark Equipment, Jonesville’s local John Deere dealer, but employees bring items out to the parking lot when cus­tomers call ahead.

In order to keep his business going, Baker said he is still mar­keting and selling last year’s crop, which he’s been selling all winter. He plans to wait to con­tinue selling, though, while crop prices are down, in the hopes they will rebound in the summer. Baker said he expects the financial impact on the current crop in storage to be “fairly minimal, but it depends on whether we sell the rest.”

The farm would be in better shape, he said, if they had cleaned out their storage of crops back in January when crop prices weren’t so bad.

The current sit­u­ation has made Baker a little more cau­tious, he said, in getting ready to plant this year’s crop, which he is doing now; things are even ahead of where they were last year, Baker said. He’s hoping for some warmer weather, though.

Baker said he typ­i­cally starts selling in the winter for that year’s crop. He tries to make sure there is enough sold ahead of time for delivery in the fall when harvest begins. That allows him to store the rest, as the farm pro­duces more crops than he can store.

“We don’t need to have our bins empty until August, Sep­tember time,” Baker said. “That gives us a year and a half, almost two years.”

Nathan and Mattea Baker ride in their tractor with their sons Rylan and Braysen. Courtesy | Nathan Baker

For this year’s crop, Baker said he plans to plant all of the acres on the farm. No farmer would likely plant less than what they have, he said. 

Baker said everyone likes to blame bad crop prices on some­thing, like the recent agri­cul­tural tariffs, but a number of issues over the last several years have com­pounded to make for a bad sit­u­ation. According to him, there is an over­supply problem in the U.S., which has hurt prices much more than the tariffs. Also, weather factors are always a problem in agri­culture, he said, such as the nationwide drought in 2012 that created a supply issue. 

He also points to an ongoing decline in the country’s dairy industry. The National Farmers Union reported that between 1992 and 2019, more than 94,000 dairies shut down.

The effects of the COVID-19 pan­demic are just the latest problem facing farmers.

Baker also runs a seed business, and the pan­demic has impacted that business even more than the farm, he said. This is the time he nor­mally gets seeds delivered to cus­tomers, as they will want to plant in a couple of weeks. But, as agri­culture, it is still con­sidered an essential business, he said.

“Being face-to-face is a little more dif­ficult right now,” he said. “This time of year, I typ­i­cally stop in to talk to my cus­tomers and my prospects. I don’t feel I can really do that right now.”

But cus­tomers have been willing to work with him and adjust to the sit­u­ation. 

“We don’t end our meetings with a hand­shake anymore,” he said.

He and his cus­tomers are doing their best to mit­igate the spread of coro­n­avirus, but at the same time, he needs to get the seeds to his cus­tomers because the window for planting “opens as soon as the ground dries up enough.”

Lockdown ‘an overnight change’ for some pro­ducers

For some Hillsdale-area agri­cul­tural pro­ducers, the impli­ca­tions of the pan­demic and the lockdown had imme­diate effects on business. For Aimee Buckley, owner of Overland Lamb and Wool in Jonesville, the state lockdown “made an overnight change.”

“As a small-scale lamb pro­ducer, our primary clientele are restau­rants that serve locally grown food,” Buckley said.

But Buckley lost the majority of her com­mercial cus­tomers, she said. She is trying new ways to cre­atively out­source meat. But one of the problems, she said, is that lambs are sea­sonal, unlike cattle and pork.

“In the off-season, we do wholesale mar­keting to restau­rants. During the on-season, we do custom cuts for indi­vidual buyers,” Buckley said. “We’re in the middle of lambing season, so we are in the off-season now.”

Buckley said she isn’t worried if she can make it to the fall. She might even see an increase in business come fall, she said. 

“I’m per­sonally not worried, come the fall,” Buckley said. “I am worried now.”

The impact of the state lockdown has required her to rethink how to do things, she said. Several weeks ago, for example, Buckley set up a Patreon website for people to sub­scribe and support the business. 

Another way she plans to address the problems pre­sented by the lockdown is by shifting her business toward indi­vidual buyers, rather than restau­rants, until it is clear how the sit­u­ation will change.

“Working with local restau­rants to provide local food has been important to me,” she said. “But we can’t depend on that right now..”

Buckley said she also sells live lambs as breeding stock and is thankful she “presold some of those before this all hit.” She said the like­lihood of people buying live lambs, however, might be lower, as con­sumers’ pri­or­ities change.

Processors in the state, she noted, are cur­rently flooded with small-scale farmers trying to sell their products. There has been an upswing in buyers from small pro­ducers, according to Buckley, which is why state processors are packed right now. Some processors have even shut down or slowed their pro­cessing speeds because of sick employees.

“I’m used to taking lambs in every week or two,” she said.

Now, Buckley is unable to get lambs in for pro­cessing until Feb­ruary 2021.

“I can’t sell meat because I can’t get it processed, even though buyers are lining up,” she said. 

Buckley is fin­ishing her doc­torate at Michigan State Uni­versity, in which she has researched the meat value chain for small pro­ducers and how small pro­ducers interact with the meat market. The small-scale farmer, she said, tends to be invisible to the general public. People will begin seeing the impor­tance of these small, local pro­ducers, she said, as the state’s non-farming pop­u­lation relies on small pro­ducers for quality meat.

“So many people are dependent on com­mercial agri­culture for their meat sources and protein sources,” she said. “Ninety-eight percent of meat pro­ducers produce under 200 animals, and 98% in Michigan are small pro­ducers.”

Michigan has 26 USDA processors that are open for small pro­ducers to access, according to Buckley. Of those 26, only 12 take sheep and goats, she said. While there are hun­dreds of custom processors in Michigan, Buckley said that if pro­ducers want to sell their meat in a store or in indi­vidual cuts, they have to use a USDA processor.

‘I can’t stop growing plants’

Glei’s Orchard, which has been in business for 102 years, remains open during pan­demic and state lockdown. Damon Glei said he has been reading through Whitmer’s exec­utive orders to be sure he and his employees are fol­lowing the safety pre­cau­tions for busi­nesses. Glei said he has been in con­tinual contact with Rep. Julie Alexander, who serves as the chair of the Michigan House Com­mittee on Agri­culture, and he has also com­mu­ni­cated with Rep. Eric Leutheuser and the office of Sen. Mike Shirkey. 

“I’ve spent a good portion of my time reading exec­utive orders and talking to rep­re­sen­ta­tives, making sure we’re doing every­thing we can,” Glei said. “If they tell us we have to put in direc­tional signs and all these other things, we better be doing those. And we better be doing it better than Walmart.”

Damon Glei (left) says he is worried that Gov. Gretchen Whit­mer’s lockdown orders are pref­er­ential to big-box stores. Courtesy | Cloe Pennix

Glei said he sees a con­cerning double-standard between big-box stores and small busi­nesses. In his view, the state gov­ernment was focused on shutting down small busi­nesses while allowing larger stores to remain open. Larger stores also have not been strictly fol­lowing all pre­cau­tions, according to Glei.

“Who’s holding the big-box stores accountable?” Glei said. “That’s the problem I have with cor­porate America.”

While big-box stores were restricted from selling agri­cul­tural products, Glei said that helped him con­tinue running his business, though only because he chose to remain open for sales. Glei said he decided not to shut down in April, like other local busi­nesses. Glei said that if he closed his business in April, it would have gone bankrupt without revenue. He would have had “half-a-million dollars’ worth of plants that need care every day, with no income to pay for that.”

“I can’t stop growing plants,” he said. “At our own nursery, we planted this stuff 10 months ago.”

Staying open with man­dated pre­cau­tions presents chal­lenges to daily work. The day after Whitmer issued Exec­utive Order 42 , Glei said, he put up direc­tional signs to help keep cus­tomers moving safely through the green­house. There are also direc­tional signs in the parking lot. 

Glei said he has been trying new ways for cus­tomers to place orders on plants.

“We’re willing to do curbside pickup,” Glei said. “We’re willing to do online orders, which we’ve never done before.”

Glei’s employees Shoshanna Smith (left) and Jarid Nunez pose next to the store’s tem­porary “one-way exit.” Courtesy | Cloe Pennix

Mean­while, Glei said he has lost about three-quarters of his employees. Some have col­lected unem­ployment money, while staying home in fear of being exposed, Glei said. To mit­igate the loss of these employees, Glei said he was able to bring on workers from Camp Michindoh, as they have not been able to host their usual pro­grams. Without them, Glei said he isn’t sure he would have had a spring season.

Glei also hopes to bring on foreign labor through the Department of Labor’s H‑2A program. The program allows agri­cul­tural pro­ducers to hire foreign employees tem­porarily when they have a shortage of domestic employees. Through this program, Glei applied for a crew, which he antic­i­pates will arrive in early June. Glei, however, said finding people with a solid work ethic has been a problem in the United States even before the COVID-19 pan­demic.

“We couldn’t get local people to want to show up every day,” Glei said. “A lot of Amer­icans have lost the sense that if you’re hired to do a job, you do the job to the best of your ability.”

For Michigan pro­ducers, there are still many uncer­tainties as to how the state lockdown and pan­demic will change things moving into the summer and even the fall. With such a wide variety of farms and pro­ducers in Michigan, it’s hard to know how the seasons will shake out. But smaller farms will get hit the most, Baker said.

“When margins are really tight like they are now, it’s harder to survive on a few acres,” he said. “I could see where some guys with smaller farms decide to retire and quit. But in terms of farming big-picture, the ground is going to keep getting farmed. Somebody is going to plant a crop.”