With cows needing to be milked, livestock needing to be fed and another growing season right around the corner, farmers are responding to the global coronavirus pandemic in much the same way they’ve attempted to weather five years of depressed commodity prices: by continuing to farm.
John Rosenow of Rosenholm Dairy and Cowsmo Compost near Cochrane milks 600 Holsteins and makes enough compost from the farm’s manure solids to sell to 17 states and four foreign countries, he said.
Rosenow has 17 employees between the dairy and Cowsmo Compost. He said he has notices up around the farm alerting workers to the dangers of the coronavirus and he had scheduled an interpreter to come to the farm to discuss with his employees the best practices for avoiding the illness. Otherwise, Rosenow said, business has continued pretty much as usual on the farm, with milk and compost shipments going out as scheduled and parts for equipment repairs being available and able to get to the farm in a timely manner.
“You can envision a whole lot worse,” Rosenow said. “But there’s still the concern about the milk price. It was coming along for a couple months where it actually looked pretty decent, but then this happened.”
Mark Stephenson, director of Dairy Policy Analysis and director of the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability, and John Shutske, Extension specialist in Biological Systems Engineering and director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, authored a March 16 paper identifying six possible impacts of COVID-19 on farming.
The potential impacts Stephenson and Shutske identified included an impact on markets and prices due to social-distancing recommendations possibly lessening demand for products and bottlenecks at ports in other countries as ships wait to be offloaded with U.S. dairy and other farm products; supply chains slowdowns and shortages; farmer health; farm workforce disruptions due to either illness or a need to stay home to care for children who are out of school; worker safety and potential shortages of personal protective equipment; and general disruptions to normal life, including school and church closures.
“There are few answers at this point, but we should at least be aware of what may unfold over the next several months,” Stephenson said. “Our own lives are disrupted by the pandemic, but this is insult on injury for our dairy producers.”
Rosenow said that for the time being he is in good shape at Rosenholm Dairy and Cowsmo Compost, but that some supplies could become difficult to restock if the pandemic continues for some time.
“We can’t buy dust masks. We can’t buy milking gloves. But we do have a good supply of toilet paper,” Rosenow said with a chuckle.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a March 17 news release that farmers continue to work to ensure the United States food supply chain remains strong in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“Food is essential all year round, but in the face of a pandemic it is critical the shelves remain stocked and supplies remain plentiful,” Perdue said. “America’s farmers and ranchers, and those on the front lines in the food service industry are doing their part.”
Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski said DATCP would be meeting and would provide updates on issues including workforce challenges in order to make sure the food supply chain has the workers it needs to remain in action.
“I have heard from several farmers in my district who are concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on milk hauling, supply chains and food processors,” state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said in a news release.
“As in any wide-scale crisis, there are rumors floating around the industry. The bottom line is that food supply security is one of the top priorities for our state at this time and we are doing all we can to protect, encourage and support farmers, processors, transportation and production.”
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation recommended in a March 18 news release that farmers consult DATCP’s COVID-19 Toolkit at https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/News_Media/Covid19.aspx. This toolkit includes a checklist that farmers should review for their own businesses.
“During this time of many unknowns we realize that farmers will face challenges. We ask farmers to be patient with businesses’ decisions to protect employees by modifying hours or protocols,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Joe Bragger said. “Be proactive to the best of your ability. Call the folks you work with to see how things are changing so that you can be prepared. I like to say, plan for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s exactly what we should be doing right now.”
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak and guidelines from Wisconsin Department of Health Services, UW-Madison, and federal agencies, UW-Extension offices may have limited availability and access for several weeks. UW-Extension Dunn County Agriculture Agent Katie Wantoch said UW-Extension educators are working remotely and many of Extension’s events have been postponed or canceled, including many 4-H club meetings and events.
“Educators are increasing our efforts to learn and teach over webinar platforms, such as Zoom,” said Wantoch, who started telecommuting on March 16. “Many of us have a list of activities that we hoped to get done on a rainy day. I guess that day is now.”
UW-Extension sent out a mailing in early March with information for farms and ag businesses to provide resources and information regarding coronavirus that can be found at https://dunn.extension.wisc.edu/files/2020/03/COVID-19onFarm.pdf.
Wantoch said she recently recorded a presentation that she taught during the Cultivating Your Farm Future workshop, “Top Ten Things to Consider during Farm Succession.” She said the 10 short videos will be available soon on the Dunn County Extension social media pages and the Extension Farm Management Topic Hub site, https://farms.extension.wisc.edu.
“Educators are looking for ways like this to continue to deliver our programming to clientele,” she said.
As coronavirus concerns were taking off in early March, the 2020 Farm Technology Days Executive Committee met several times to discuss any potential impact on the July 21-23 show at Huntsinger Farms in Eau Claire County. John Leary, Executive Committee chairman with Wisconsin Farm Technology Days 2020 in Eau Claire County, said the Executive Committee is working closely with the Eau Claire County Health Department to monitor the situation and make any adjustments deemed necessary for a safe and healthy show in July.
“The health and safety of all our attendees, volunteers, and exhibitors from across Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota is our primary concern,” Leary said. “Based on everything we know right now we are moving forward with planning for a great show for our exhibitors and attendees at Huntsinger Farms in Eau Claire.”
The Executive Committee will update exhibitors by May 1 of their plans, he said.
Rosenow said he has had presentations at several meetings canceled due to concerns about the size of gatherings. But, he said, for most farmers, he didn’t expect social-distancing recommendations to become much of an issue.
“When you live in a rural area, you can go for a walk and not see anybody,” he said. “On the farm, you can keep yourself busy.”