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New York's agriculture sectors reeling under the weight of coronavirus

ALBANY – Farmers are accustomed to not being able to dictate what could make or break them from one year to the next, from drought and floods to market prices and labor supply.

But the coronavirus is threatening agriculture, upstate New York’s biggest industry, in ways that farmers today have never witnessed.

It is affecting everything from dairy and horse farms to maple sugar operations, wineries and vegetable growers.

“It’s completely out of our control," said Dennis Brawdy, a partner at Amos Zittel & Sons, a 123-year-old farm in Eden that runs a country market and supplies wholesale vegetables and greenhouse plants to garden shops, grocery stores throughout Western New York, and restaurants – many now closed – in New York City.

The economic troubles facing New York’s many agriculture sectors is likely to spell a permanent crippling for some farmers, especially those on the financial brink long before Covid-19 became a household word.

“The threat to our industry is out there. It’s real. … It’s coming. We just don’t know to what extent yet," said Jeff Simons, a fourth generation dairy farmer in Wales.

Agricultural distribution networks have been turned upside down. With schools closed, restaurants shuttered or scaled back and large food service operations from cruise lines to factory cafeterias disrupted, a series of destinations for New York’s farm products dried up nearly overnight.

The logistics have become a nightmare. Consider: How can a supplier switch from making only half-pint containers of milk at schools to half-gallon containers for grocery stores? They can’t.

In fact, the processing and distribution system became so mixed up for a time that some dairy farmers began dumping milk because processors could not handle the over-supply.

One day last week, a Chautauqua County farmer tossed away 60,000 pounds of milk each day for four days because of the problem.

Meanwhile, there is a logjam for beef farmers because a major cattle processing plant in Pennsylvania shut down after workers there became infected with Covid-19. Greenhouse growers found out just how bad things are when baskets of lilies, popular at Easter, had to be tossed out or given away.

Labor supplies are also being hit. Upstate farmers, especially fruit and vegetable growers, rely on H-2A temporary visa immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean. New York farmers say that program has become confusing and workers have been delayed in getting to upstate from places like Mexico.

Then there is the virus itself. Many upstate farms are small, run by a handful of family members. Some farmers are living in day-to-day fear that one family member getting the virus could affect how much work gets done each day on a farm – thereby affecting the flow of food and beverages to family kitchens, essential businesses still in operation, food pantries or restaurants struggling to survive in the new takeout and delivery-only era.

Abimael Muniz picks seedless concord grapes by hand in a vineyard at Erdle Farms in Silver Creek, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Grapes

Grapes are big business in Western New York. Kevin Jones, an extension educator for Penn State Extension, which works with farmers from Niagara County into Pennsylvania, said the stocking of pantries by consumers was a boon for grape suppliers to big wine companies. “The grape juice industry has been very healthy, too," said Jones, who is based in Chautauqua County.

But the micro-wineries, small operations that rely on tourists to take tours, have been slammed with the shuttering of tasting rooms.

Like most farmers, the grape and wineries have not been hit by major supply chain bumps. Fuel for tractors is moving, as are seeds, animal feed, pesticides, fence posts and other farm necessities.

“What’s keeping people up at night is the unknown," Jones said.

At Schulze Vineyards & Winery along the Niagara Wine Trail, Ann Schulze said sales have dropped since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo imposed a “pause” on New York’s economy that closes operations such as winery tasting rooms.

“We’re just doing everything to survive," Schulze said. To that end, her family is doing free delivery of wine to customers in three counties.

Among her concerns: what to do with a batch of Riesling-like wine sitting in tanks waiting to be bottled. Gone from the winery, for now: the eight part-time people, most of them teachers, who help run the tasting room at the winery in Burt near the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

Dennis Brawdy-Farm Trouble-2020

Marco Antonico Vargas-Morales waters plants in a greenhouse at Amos Zittel & Sons Inc. in Eden on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Vegetables and greenhouses

Some crops, like corn, are already in the ground on many upstate farms. More labor-intensive plants are due soon, from tomato seedlings to broccoli. Greenhouses growing many of those plants that will be transferred to fields need workers, and vegetable growers are worried about their own labor supply.

Brawdy said Zittel’s grows about $1 million worth of floral crops for the wholesale market, including many garden centers in the region. But there are restrictions, due to the pandemic, about what garden stores can open and what landscapers can do.

“That puts a big question mark: Are we going to be able to sell that crop or not?" he said. For garden centers that are open, questions linger about whether consumers will feel safe heading out to buy plants when government officials tell them to stay home. And, of course: Will the newly unemployed be able to spend on things like plants?

The H-2A labor supply is also a growing worry. At the Zittel’s farm, 130 people usually are at work by the summer. That number is uncertain for 2020.

Typically, Zittel’s brings about 80 temporary visa workers from Mexico each year. They expected 18 to arrive in early April. But bureaucratic delays means they won't arrive until May. “Do we quarantine them when they arrive?" Brawdy wondered.

Yet another problem: Zittel’s farms 350 acres for wholesale customers, which include supermarkets and a once-brisk New York City restaurant clientele. The farm has planted corn and has a greenhouse full of tomatoes. “But, the wholesale part of the business is completely dried up," Brawdy said.

David Walczak, operations manager at Eden Valley Growers, a big fruit and vegetable growers’ cooperative, estimated about 1,000 H-2A workers come to Erie and Niagara counties each year to help with planting and harvesting. “They are a huge, essential part of our business," he said.

Dan Henry is a fifth generation farmer, also in Eden Valley, at W.D. Henry & Sons, a wholesale farm that sells everything from greenhouse plants and vegetables to various fresh produce grown on 400 acres. He and his family are worried seasonal workers who come each year from Puerto Rico won’t make it in time for the busy planting and harvesting seasons.

Henry has already seen the coronavirus effects: Easter lilies. It’s a major part of the farm’s spring flower plant sales to florists and garden shops – and churches. Most churches buy lilies to place on altars. But with most services canceled this year, the impact was dramatic. In a typical year, Henry’s farm would sell out of lilies and other Easter plants, or have less than 5% stock remaining. This year: more than 20% went unsold. The farm donated many plants to area nursing homes.

If garden shops and florists open soon, “We’re hoping the consumer confidence is there," Henry said.

Moore's Maple Shack's syrup for sale in 2018. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Maple syrup

At Moore’s Maple Shack and Pancake House in Freedom in Cattaraugus County, good weather meant good production of maple syrup this spring. In a usual season, 15,000 people, many from the Buffalo area, take the annual maple journey to Moore’s over a seven-week period. This year, the state’s Covid-19 rules shut down the pancake house two weeks into the season.

The farm’s 11 workers, who serve as cooks, dishwashers, waitresses and syrup makers, are "all laid off," said Bill Moore, whose parents started the maple syrup operation in 1966. This year, he produced 4 pounds of syrup per tap, and he had 2,200 taps that trickled out the sweet substance.

For now, the syrup rests in steel drums.

“There’s no plan," Moore said of his syrup supplies, 60% of which normally sells in the spring. “There is nothing that compares to what we’re going through now."

Dairy

The dairy industry was already struggling under the weight of low prices; farmers have prices for their milk predetermined by government orders. Now, coronavirus has disrupted the supply flow. Dairy processing plants have told some farmers to dispose of truckloads of milk because they could not handle all the products in a system clogged up. Because milk is “pooled” under a federal marketing system, the financial loss from dumping milk is spread throughout the pool of farmers.

“It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever watched in my life," Kelly Hendrickson, a dairy farmer in Wyoming, said of the semi-truck tanker of milk – 70,000 pounds’ worth – that she is being told by her dairy co-op to dump every other day.

The disposal of milk is being fueled by a drop in dairy exports and closure of schools and restaurants and during what dairy farmers call the annual “spring flush” – when cows are at their most productive during the year. “It’s the perfect storm with too much milk with no home for it," said Hendrickson, whose farm has 2,800 cows that are milked three times a day.

When she's not trying to maneuver a dairy economy hit hard before the pandemic, she has been spending her evenings sewing cloth masks for her 50 employees on the farm.

Upstate Niagara Cooperative Inc., owned by 300 Western New York dairy farmers, has different marketing and distribution controls on its dairy products so that milk dumping has largely not been an issue. Besides fresh milk sold regionally, it also sends Western New York dairy products from Mexico to Puerto Rico. Still, the worries and fiscal problems are rising for dairy farmers the longer the economy stays closed down.

"We're going to lose quite a few farms over this," said Larry Webster, CEO of the cooperative.

Richard Kimball, who has 750 dairy cows on his Chautauqua County farm and is a board representative for Western New York farms with the New York Farm Bureau, a trade group based in Albany, hasn't had to dump any milk yet, but he knows of farmers who have.

“It’s a matter that the whole system got plugged up with milk," he said of milk products hit by the closing of schools and restaurants and then processors having to try to redirect more milk to grocery stores. “I see posts where people are saying farmers are greedy and dumping milk to get a higher price. That has nothing to do with it."

“There’s plenty of milk out there. It’s just the logistics and shifts that caused the temporary shortages," said Kimball, who like other farmers said retailers have no reason to limit milk sales to consumers.

There's also this reality: dairy farmers still have to feed their cows and milk them each day, even without knowing precisely how much they might get paid in a month for milk sold this month.

“It’s not a business you can close the door and lock the door and walk away from," added Simons, the Erie County farmer.

Beef

Phil Trowbridge runs a family-owned farm with 200 beef cows in Columbia County, south of Albany, and is president of the New York State Beef Producers' Association, a statewide trade group.

“It’s uncharted territory. You don’t know what to do next," he said of the current climate.

When cattle reach about 1,400 pounds, they are sold to a processing plant. Sell 10, get 10 new calves to begin the process all over again. One key problem now: the pipeline is jammed up because, in part, a Pennsylvania processing plant closed when workers came down with coronavirus.

Like other sectors, beef farmers say there is plenty of product. It’s getting that product to store shelves that is the problem. Still, beef farmers still have to go ahead and plant corn this spring to feed their cows, not knowing what the future might hold.

Trowbridge offered another example of the new troubles. He usually sells 200 pounds a week of high-end hamburger meat to a local brewery restaurant. Now it’s down to 25 pounds.

Heard in the background during an interview was one of Trowbridge’s grandchildren, who helps out on the farm.

“I’m just not sure this is going to be here for her," he said.

Poultry

Kreher Family Farms, in Clarence, is one of upstate’s largest egg farms. It supplies all the area’s major and smaller supermarkets, as well as institutional food services.

“We’re doing OK. We’re just concerned about any disruption with our employees," Hal Kreher said of the 300 workers at the farm’s three locations. Egg demand has been high at the farm, where employees are practicing social distancing.

“I think we’re very concerned. We have a couple of immune-compromised people in our family. We’re very motivated to keep this from spreading to our employees and family," Kreher said.

And, in a sign of the times, he noted: “We have job openings, if people are looking for work.”

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