Feast or famine: Disruptions due to COVID-19 spark concern, but also new ideas, for Routt County farmers
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Even under normal circumstances, Colby Townsend knows that running a farm is no easy business.
At his small, family operation, Hayden Fresh Farm, a few miles south of its namesake town in Routt County, Townsend has found a niche in supplying local restaurants with eggs and meat. Those sales accounted for about 90% of his business, he said.
Then, in mid-March, those restaurants were forced to close their doors to customers as the state tried to slow the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has upended nearly every aspect of life. Some eateries, like Taco Cabo and Harwigs, have continued to offer food through takeout and delivery, but it was clear Townsend needed to find another way to make money.
He is one of many farmers and ranchers in Routt County that have been affected by the pandemic. While life on the farm continues as usual — chickens are still laying eggs and livestock still needs to be fed — the rest of the supply chain has not been immune to the disruptions caused by the virus.
Hits to the industry
The same is true for farmers and ranchers across Colorado and the country. Disruptions to the industry have necessitated a complete restructuring of the agricultural system to prevent food waste and shortages.
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Meat processing has taken a big hit as plants shut down or slow operations to prevent the spread of the virus. As of this week, processing capacity was down about 15% compared to last year, according to data from the Colorado Livestock Association.
The JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, one of the country’s largest processing facilities, had to close for two weeks as the virus swept through the facility. The plant is the site of one of the largest outbreak of COVID-19, with 245 confirmed cases and five deaths, according to a report this week from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. On April 24, JBS was allowed to reopen, despite ongoing concerns over health measures.
As a result of the slowdown, some ranchers elsewhere in the state have seen cuts in the value of their livestock. Others are wondering what to do with the animals they still have to feed but cannot sell to their usual clientele, namely restaurants, hotels and schools. Headlines have surfaced about farmers dumping milk, throwing out eggs and even euthanizing livestock they cannot sell at profitable rates.
Justin Warren, a local cattle rancher and president of Routt County Cattlemen’s Association, runs a virtual auction for ranchers across Colorado and in parts of Utah and Wyoming. Since the end of February, he has seen prices for calves headed to feedlots drop by about 18%. That means a loss of about $200 per an average, 800-pound calf.
“We have the supply, but we have no demand,” Warren said.
His own ranch, in South Routt, has not felt the fallout of the pandemic just yet. His cattle, which he sells as unweaned calves, don’t go to market until the end of summer.
The same is true for Warren’s uncle-in-law, Doug Monger, a fellow cattle rancher who also serves on the Routt County Board of Commissioners. While most of his business is done in October and November, Monger worries that the industry will not recover from the pandemic by then.
Most of the beef from his ranch goes to the restaurant industry in the form of high-quality cuts like ribeyes and T-bones. If restaurants cannot return to business as usual, Monger will face a similar dilemma that Colby Townsend is facing at his Hayden farm.
“When the restaurants are going away, we are getting hurt just like the restaurants are getting hurt,” Monger said.
Part of the problem, he explained, is that a small handful of meat processing producers control the vast share of the market, determining the value of his cattle. If the processing plants continue to reduce their operations, that means less revenue for producers, like Monger’s ranch, and higher meat prices for consumers.
“The producers are going to get paid less, then at the meat market and grocery stores, we will get charged more,” Monger said.
Only time will tell how the pandemic affects his ranch. Monger has plenty to keep him busy until then, from branding newborn calves to fixing fence, but the coming months weigh heavy on his mind.
“Maybe we recover. Maybe there is a demand back for beef, but we really don’t know right now,” Monger said.
An already broken system
For Townsend, the current disruptions in the supply chain have illuminated gaps and problems in the agriculture industry that existed long before the pandemic.
The Hayden farmer repeated a line he has been using for years, one that has been ringing particularly true to him in the last month: “I never underestimate the ability of the government to screw up my life.”
Townsend points to a number of factors, from regulations to policies, that have favored large, commercial operations and hindered smaller farms like his own.
“These barriers and regulations have been put up for small producers to keep us small,” Townsend said. “It is a constant fight.”
The growth of commercial agriculture has cultivated a generation of apathetic consumers, he added. The bulk of the food in people’s pantries comes from grocery stores, not local farms, which has made buying food more impersonal and disconnected from the source.
“We feel our customers are so distant from agriculture that they really don’t know what is going on,” Townsend said.
Todd Hagenbuch, the director and agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University in Routt County, described additional ways in which the agricultural economy has been struggling since before the current crisis. Increases in the costs of land and decreases in the value of commodities have made it hard to turn a profit, he said, forcing some to sell their operations or work second jobs.
Another major concern to industry leaders and legislators is the mental toll the pandemic has taken on farmers and ranchers who do not see a way for their operations, some of which have been around for generations, to survive the coming months.
“I’m worried this (pandemic) could, depending on which direction it goes, be the final nail in the coffin for some producers that were having a hard time holding on prior to COVID-19,” Hagenbuch said.
As if the pandemic were not bad enough, an unexpected frost along the Western Slope has decimated harvests, particularly peach orchards, with crop losses as high as 95% in some areas, according to news reports. Gov. Jared Polis has requested a disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help affected farmers. The declaration is still pending.
Hatching a new business model
Without restaurants to buy his products, Townsend completely reinvented his business. For the last month, Hayden Fresh Farm has made its products available through weekend farm stands in Steamboat Springs and Hayden. The innovative transition has paid off — literally.
Using those sales, Townsend has been able to recoup much of the loss in revenue from the restaurant industry. He is selling about 2,000 eggs per day, which usually form the bulk of his business. A waiting list has grown for poultry. Some customers claimed his pork is some of the best they’ve ever tasted.
“We have really felt the outreach from the community,” Townsend said. “As soon as the restaurants closed, my phone started ringing off the hook.”
People tell Townsend they opt to buy his products for a number of reasons. Many do not feel safe going to the grocery store. Others want food that has been touched by fewer people. Still others want to support local agriculture and like to know where their food comes from.
Farmers and ranchers across the state similarly are reevaluating the way they do business, with some creating online markets to maneuver around the disruptions in the supply chain. The Colorado Department of Agriculture is in the process of updating its Colorado Proud website to advertise the kind of produce farmers and ranchers have and how people can buy it.
Townsend sees this as an opportunity for a food renaissance, a movement that could uproot the commercial model in favor of a more direct, farm-to-table approach.
“For many different reasons, that would be good for the country in the long run,” Townsend said.
Help on the way
During a virtual meeting among state legislators and industry representatives on Friday, officials affirmed that despite the disruption to the nation’s distribution system, food supply remains strong. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump took executive action to keep meat processing plants open amid the pandemic and prevent shortages at grocery stores.
To help farmers and ranchers weather the financial crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. It includes $19 billion in federal relief, with $16 billion going directly to farms and ranches, according to a news release from the USDA about the program.
Another $3 billion will be used to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat from distributors that have lost business from the restaurant closures. Those products eventually will go to food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits serving people in need, according to the USDA.
State officials plan to help farmers and ranchers access these funds, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said during the virtual meeting.
Colorado Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee, ended the meeting with a message to farmers and ranchers in the state.
“I want you to know that I’m very proud of you,” Catlin said. “This state needs you. We need you now more than we’ve needed you in the past, and we will need you in the future. Hang on, because we can probably do this, but we’ll have to do it together.”
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