Farmers describe economic loss from COVID-19

Patrick Harney
Wayne Post
Wayne County Farmer Kim Skellie, of El-Vi Farms, discusses the impact of the novel coronavirus on his business. The best thing federal lawmakers can do, in his opinion, is ensure funds get to local municipalities. "We're all concerned about local budgets, the budget for the state."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article originally stated that 85% of respondents did not have to quarantine

Like most businesses and industries in New York and across the country, farms also are taking a big financial hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The New York Farm Bureau hosted a virtual press conference Tuesday morning detailing the findings of an informal survey related to the impact of the pandemic on farmers across the state.

“We wanted to get a broader understanding of what the pandemic meant for agriculture,” Farm Bureau President David Fisher said. “What we found was, no farm hasn’t suffered.”

Jeff Williams, director of public policy, discussed the questions and responses the Farm Bureau received, from how their mental health has been faring to what kinds of price drops or reductions in purchases they’ve made.

In the Farm and Agribusinesses COVID-19 Impact Survey, 12 questions were posed to 531 farmers, employees and agribusiness owners.

Approximately 37% of respondents stated that their business had been negatively impacted by the pandemic, with 43% stating that lost sales were the biggest driver of COVID-19 disruptions, followed by 37% who cited cash-flow issues.

Williams praised the actions farms had taken to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, based on findings from the survey.

Several survey questions covered how farms and agribusinesses were handling personal protection equipment, or PPE, for workers and how they were minimizing potential outbreaks.

According to survey findings, 75% found “no issues” with securing personal protective equipment.

84% of farms which had employees also had a plan in place to train and assist employees to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to the survey.

Similarly, 85% of respondents did not have to quarantine any of their employees who had either tested positive for COVID-19 or showed symptoms of the disease, based on 53% of respondents who had employees, compared to 48% that did not.

Willams said he’s “really proud of how our farm employers have worked with their employees to have safeguards in place.”

Kim Skellie, of El-Vi Farms in Newark, described how as a result of social distancing guidelines, he’s needed to space out his workforce, “tripling lunch room space” and having to figure out workarounds for the use of farm vehicles.

Jim Bittner, of Bittner Singer Orchards in Niagara County, described the ability to work outside in the farm’s 400 acres of fruit trees as an “advantage.”

Bittner also detailed how his workforce is trained through remote means instead of in-person meetings.

“Everybody’s got smartphones, so we’ve moved training to smartphones,” Bittner said, noting how extensive use of the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s video library has also been useful.

In Broome County, Judi Whittaker of Whittaker Farms said the farm has had significant problems with the supply chain.

“We’re having a hard time getting repairs done and crops done,” Whittaker said. “That’s been a pretty big challenge for us.”

While Fisher said how farmers have always needed to factor in “unpredictability” — including weather — farms across the state are in dire need of getting working supply chains and growth in the market.

“Agriculture must be part of the conversation,” as lawmakers continued to discuss future relief packages, he said.

“COVID continues to affect our farmers, large and small,” Fisher said, adding that he hoped the press conference would “paint a picture” for lawmakers to provide more relief to the community.

Skellie said federal dollars would go a long way to helping farmers in need. "We’re all concerned about local budgets, the budget for the state," he said.

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher says every farm surveyed had been impacted as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. "What we found was no farm hasn't suffered."