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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”