A bumper crop of woes

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If the produce market doesn’t improve, Brightly Farms, co-managed by Dean and Betsy Brightly, could face losses. 
(Homepage photo and the photo above courtesy of Brightly Farms)

Distance from more densely populated urban areas with higher rates of coronavirus infection has not protected farmers in the Rochester-Finger Lakes. For agriculture businesses, COVID-19 has meant loss of customers, shattered food supply networks and extra costs to keep farm workers safe.

“We’re paying our bills, but how long can you keep going?” says Betsy Brightly, who co-manages Brightly Farms with her husband Dean, its owner.  

If the produce market doesn’t improve, the Hamlin farm could face a loss of as much as $100,000 on one crop alone. 

Brightly’s concerns are widespread. Due to the effects of COVID-19 on markets ranging from schools and universities to restaurants, hotels and ethanol producers, some U.S. farmers are allowing their produce to rot in the fields. Dairy farmers milk their cows, then pour the milk into ground. 

As of last month, most farmers in the Finger Lakes region did not appear to have taken such steps so far, but no one knows for sure when the produce and dairy markets will recover from the effects of COVID-19. That largely depends on whether the measures taken against the deadly virus have been sufficiently effective.

All of New York’s nonessential businesses had to cease nearly all in-person activities after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his New York State on PAUSE Executive Order on March 20. Farms, considered essential under PAUSE, didn’t have to shut down, but many local farmers felt the pandemic’s effects nonetheless.

“They lost their major customers,” says Jarmila Haseler, agricultural educator for Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Monroe County.

Sluggish demand

More than half of Howlett Farms’ acreage is in corn production. In the past, 50 percent of that crop went to upstate factories that produce the gasoline additive ethanol. Many cars now sit idle for long stretches, severely reducing the demand for gas and its additives. One of the ethanol plants to which Howlett Farms sold its corn is now shuttered and the other has cut production, reducing the farm’s market for corn. 

“Only about 15 percent is going to ethanol, because of the ethanol plant shutdowns,” says Michael Howlett, who co-owns the Avon farm with his father.

In the past, half of Howlett Farms’ corn crop went to upstate factories that produce the gasoline additive ethanol. Now, many cars sit idle for long stretches, reducing demand.
(Photo credit: Howlett Farms)

Diminished demand for milk and milk products also has affected his business, as dairy farmers decreased their orders for the corn they used as cattle feed. Atop that, the market for wheat and the farm’s other crops has fallen. 

“The prices of the crops that we’re raising have dropped below the cost of production,” Howlett says.

Growers of storage crops like apples, cabbage and kale also have been hit by the market downturn. Brightly usually ships her cabbage to several states, where processors turn it into coleslaw or the filling of Chinese egg rolls. 

“We would normally be selling three to four truckloads of cabbage per week, that and butternut squash,” she says.

Local food pantries haven’t wanted the stuff, and shipping it out of the area is too expensive.

“Cabbage is heavy, and it costs from $1,800 to $3,000 for every load we ship,” Brightly explains.

Four million pounds of the vegetable now sit in Brightly’s refrigerators burning up money in storage costs.

Wholesale prices for milk, which are calculated per hundredweight, also have fallen since COVID-19 began to spread around the country, forcing economic shutdowns. In April, prices hovered around $16 and by May had dropped to near $12.

Hoping to prop up milk prices, the dairy cooperative to which Keith Kimball, owner of the Avon dairy farm La Casa La Leche, belongs has asked its members to cut production by 10 percent. Though milk prices could rise this month, reduced output and lower milk prices could cut into Kimball’s profits before then. 

“We’re probably looking at revenues being off by 30 to 40 percent from where (were) in April,” Kimball says. 

Unable to sell their milk at acceptable prices, some of his neighbors have even poured it into the ground.

Wholesale prices for milk, which are calculated per hundredweight, have fallen since COVID-19 began to spread around the country.
(Photo credit: La Casa La Leche)

Community support

Farms that have community-supported agriculture programs have fared better than some others. Customers subscribe to the CSA, place orders for fresh produce by phone or online, and pick them up at the farm or other locations. Before the pandemic, some local programs regularly delivered produce to groups of customers at local businesses.

Each year, Sunscape Farms grows about 1 million pounds of fresh market vegetables, greenhouse crops and small fruit on 100 acres that are divided between Greece and Penfield. Fully 35 percent of Sunscape’s output goes to its CSA program, and new subscriptions are coming in so fast that co-owner Nate Savage is considering refusing applications. 

“We pick the stuff for that day. You only have so much time to do that,” Savage says.

Each year, Sunscape Farms grows about 1 million pounds of fresh market vegetables, greenhouse crops and small fruit.
(Photo credit: Sunscape Farms)

Sunscape sells the rest of its output at its two farm markets, which are open year-round. Savage admits that his operation is not doing as well as it has in the past, but he says Sunscape’s proximity to Rochester has helped it weather COVID-19’s effects.

“Most consumers are located in the cities, away from farms,” Savage explains. “Most farms, especially large ones, are far out in the country.”

One Ontario County farm’s CSA accounts for nearly 100 percent of its sales.

“It’s my friends and neighbors that I’m feeding,” says Erin Bullock, Wild Hill Farm’s owner and fieldwork manager.

Wild Hill grows pesticide- and chemical-free vegetables, melons, blueberries, herbs and flowers on seven acres in Ontario County. Nearly 400 people have signed up with its CSA this year, about the same as in 2019.

Nearly 400 people have signed up with Wild Hill Farm’s CSA this year, about the same as in 2019.
(Photo credit: Wild Hill Farm)

Workplace safety

In keeping with government guidelines concerning workplace safety during the pandemic, Wild Hill encourages everyone to maintain social distancing as much as possible. Individuals work alone in their departments, and vehicles aren’t shared. 

“Only one person drives a tractor, and only one person drives a truck,” Bullock explains.

When workers can’t work separately, they wear masks and heavy rubber gloves. Everyone washes their hands frequently, and tools are sanitized after usage. 

Other farms around the region have also issued masks and gloves to their employees, and striven to make sure they use safe work habits.

“We’re working to retrain people all the time to keep them focused on that six-foot distance, not to handle each other’s equipment or tools,” Savage explains.

Howlett sent about 14 of his farm’s clerical staff home, leaving no more than three in the office. He has issued masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to his truck drivers, who are told not to get out of their trucks when making pickups and deliveries.

Hoping to reduce the risk that a vendor could drop off a load of COVID-19 in addition to goods or equipment, La Casa La Leche strictly limits outside access to its property.

“If somebody’s coming to the farm, then they have to have an appointment and they have to be approved,” Kimball notes.

The dairy farm issues work gloves to its 15 workers, but not masks, and encourages them to take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re just trying to get guys to do what the rest of us are doing. Just the essential stuff, social distancing,” Kimball says.

Government guidelines for lowering the risk of spreading infection are posted around the dairy farm in English and Spanish—11 of Kimball’s workers hail from south of the border, and most of them speak only Spanish. Though he says his workers can socially distance most of the time, that could be difficult in their residences. One of La Casa La Leche’s four-bedroom residences can house as many as six employees at one time.

Creating and implementing coronavirus safety plans takes time and energy.

“We had to just completely change our operations,” Bullock says. “We want to make sure everybody is safe and protected.”

It can prove costly. Sunscape’s coronavirus-related expenses have hit around $3,000 so far, and protective equipment, sanitizer and cleaning costs come to about an additional $1,000 a week. 

“I wish I was in the mask and glove business instead of the vegetable business at this point,” Savage jokes.

Unseen costs

The pandemic has proved costly in less easily seen ways as well. 

As far as Bullock knows, no one who works at Wild Hill has contracted COVID-19, though one of its five employees felt a bit ill recently. Her doctor didn’t order a test for the virus, and advised the worker to self-quarantine. The employee is back on the job, but the fear that COVID-19 could hit the farm’s small workforce weighs on Bullock even more than the measures it has to take to ward it off. 

“Psychologically, the effect is harder,” Bullock says. 

Efforts to deny COVID-19 access to a farm could also reduce its ability to do its most important job: grow crops.

“We’re definitely limited in some of the work that we can do, and it will impact some of the plantings and maintenance that we do,” Savage says.

Measures to protect farmworkers from COVID-19 might work—as long as they are implemented. Jessica Meyer, a University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry medical student, says some of the local dairy farmers who employ undocumented immigrants might be falling down on that job. 

In 2017, Meyer began offering her time to Alianza Agricola, a Western New York collective that advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrant farm workers. Many of the workers she’s talked to speak and read Spanish only, but the written information their employers post about COVID-19 is in English—and useless to them. Atop that, they have lacked important equipment. 

“They are not being provided with adequate protective personal equipment that you would expect if you’re an essential worker,” Meyers explains.

One Alianza Agricola member, Fernando, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has encountered that problem firsthand. The undocumented immigrant from Mexico speaks only Spanish, and was interviewed with the aid of an interpreter, Carly Fox, an organizer with SEIU Local 200United. Cows lowed in the background as he spoke.

Fernando says the owner of the Livingston County dairy farm where he works told its employees only that COVID-19 is “like a virus; that it’s easy to contract.” No one was given protective gear. 

“We have masks thanks to volunteers and allies who have taken concerns, who worry and care about farmworkers,” Fernando says.

The farm’s fieldworkers wear heavy work gloves most of the time, but don their masks only when visitors who might be infected with COVID-19 come to the farm. The farmer also denies them opportunity to shop offsite for food, further reducing the chance of bringing the disease onsite. 

Farms around the region are making sure they use safe work habits.

“I think their worry is to just not have any workers,” Fernando says. “Who’s going to be able to milk the cows?”

Instead, he and his coworkers are encouraged to buy food on the internet—via the farmer. That wouldn’t stop COVID-19 from spreading through the crowded residences that the dairy farm provides for its workers, where effective hygiene is difficult to maintain.

“We know what we need to do to take care of ourselves, but sometimes there’s not even, like, a bar of soap for us to be able to use,” he explains.

One agricultural company, Green Empire Farms, recently learned how crowding workers together can affect operations. Since early May, at least 169 of the 270 migrant workers that the Oneida farm employs at its huge greenhouse have tested positive for COVID-19. Almost all of the workers were housed in local hotels, sometimes four to a room.

Madison County officials have ordered Green Empire to build bunkhouses.

Risks for farmworkers

The risks posed by COVID-19 are greater for undocumented immigrant farmworkers than for those who are native-born. Should Fernando become ill and seek medical care, he could easily catch the eye of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. If he is deported, Fernando would no longer be able to send money to his parents back home, whom he supports.

At a time when Fernando and his coworkers are considered essential, it is disturbing to them that their employers refuse to give them the same employment benefits that some other U.S. workers have.

“Why, if we’re ‘essential workers,’ are we left out of all the benefits of the government, like health benefits or other benefits, that you hear about other workers have in other industries?” he says.

Even short-term state aid for undocumented immigrant workers who have suffered at the hands of COVID-19 appears to be out of the question for now. At an April 16 press conference, a reporter asked Cuomo whether his administration intended to provide financial aid to such workers. He replied that his administration was “looking into it but we have real financial problems.”

For Fernando and his coworkers, that was definitely the wrong answer.

“That’s something like, really hard on them, because they’re working day and night,” he says. “It gets us very mad and sad and frustrated that the governor talks about immigrants and that’s … something that he doesn’t want to deal with right now.”

Farmers, on the other hand, can tap into different forms of government financial aid. The U.S. Small Business Administration has approved Kimball’s application for a Payroll Protection Program loan.

“It will cover our payroll for eight weeks. It’s a significant help,” he says.

As part of the $2.2 trillion CARES stimulus program, the federal Department of Agriculture has agreed to provide $19 billion in aid to farmers hurt by COVID-19. Of that total, $16 billion is in the form of grants to farmers and ranchers. Another $3 billion will be used to purchase fresh produce, meats and dairy products, which will be given to community organizations, food banks and charities. 

In addition, the new $25 million Nourish NY Initiative provides a market to which New York’s farmers can sell at least some of their surplus agricultural products. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets program buys the goods, then gives them to food banks.

Closer to home, the Monroe County Emergency Small Business Support Program is offering zero-interest small business loans of up to $10,000. To be eligible, a farmer must have been hit by the pandemic’s effects and have no more than 50 people on the payroll.

Perhaps the best news is that the Finger Lakes region is in phase two of Cuomo’s New York Forward plan for reopening the state. Businesses have to develop acceptable workplace safety plans and meet other criteria before unlocking their doors. Restaurants, a primary customer for agricultural products, have begun outdoor seating. Schools, however, will not be able to open till phase four. 

For now, local farmers are girding for the long haul.

“With the policies and procedures we have, we can sustain this a long time,” Howlett says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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