Farmers and ranchers adapt their businesses during COVID-19

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By Jennifer Whitlock
Field editor

In January 2020, reports of a mysterious deadly disease began to make international headlines. By March, the virus we now know as COVID-19 had made its way to the United States, forever changing the lives of Americans.

Overnight, the global economy changed. The markets plunged. Consumers panicked over food and household items, leaving grocery store aisles empty for weeks.

Agriculture has not been spared. Supply chain issues plagued farmers and market prices were extremely volatile.

The value of canned cuts of beef has skyrocketed as the prices ranchers receive for livestock has fallen just as quickly. Cattle feedlots were nearly overflowing as packing lines slowed to accommodate social distancing guidelines and absent workers.

Farmers have also felt the effects. Prices for cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar and other commodities fell sharply in 2020. Prices have since recovered, but the start of the pandemic was fraught with uncertainty.

Now, as the United States continues to move forward and operate under a “new normal”, farmers and ranchers continue to grow and raise animals.

Wade Lowry | W&R Farm & Ranch
At Bulverde, the past two years have been busy for fifth generation breeder Wade Lowry. As the owner and operator of a direct-to-consumer beef business, W&R Farm and Ranch, Lowry has seen sales explode since March 2020, with no signs of slowing down.

“It’s the best thing that has ever happened to us. This early food rush really opened us up to a lot of consumers who already knew us but just had never bought from us, ”he said. “Now we have a lot of new customers who have been really great with us. “

The family offers the public three different product lines: grass-fed, “ranch-raised” or grain-finished beef and Akaushi beef. Because they were already well established in the direct-to-consumer business and had a lot of cattle grazing on their South Texas ranch, it was easy enough to scale up production to meet the increased needs.

The custom-made US Department of Agriculture-inspected meat processor that Lowrys uses for all of their livestock was also ready.

“They were busy. We were busy. They were happy. We were happy, ”he said. “It was really just lightning in a bottle, and we contained it. We were able to get it to the right place at the right time.

The unpredictable Texas weather also cooperated. It was a good wet year which produced a lot of corn and forage.

There were some growing pains along the way, however.

At first, Lowry sent cattle to the processor at lighter weights and sooner than he would like to meet demand.

More beef also equates to more storage. The Lowrys wanted to buy a commercial freezer made from a freight container. But freight containers are in high demand right now, and the manufacturer couldn’t find one.

The insulated boxes needed to ship frozen beef, which are already expensive, are also rare.

So the family turned to using online marketplaces like Facebook to find enough consumer freezers to meet their needs. They also got creative in asking customers to recycle boxes from meal delivery kit services.

For every insulated shipping box that Lowrys receive from a customer, they offer a purchase discount or a free product.

Lowrys’ direct-to-consumer beef business has grown during the pandemic.

Overall, its operations and various businesses flourished during this difficult time.

“COVID has been the best thing that has ever happened to us, financially. Not only did our cattle business grow, but we had skid steer loaders, bulldozers and excavators ready to clear the land. People were buying land, so the business is going well too, ”Lowry said. “So we just kept busy and it’s been really cool. “

Matt Norton | Fiddlestick Farms
Agritourism sites like Fiddlestick Farms in Midland have had to make changes to accommodate COVID-19 protocols.

“The things we did in 2019 don’t work anymore. Something as simple as the way we put condiments and manage sanitation where the general public is has had to change to make sure people are safe and feeling safe now, ”Matt said. Norton, owner of Fiddlesticks Farms with his wife Jessica.

Because Fiddlestick Farms is an outdoorsy place, the pandemic hasn’t hurt their business as badly as others. The eight-acre corn maze, 15-acre pumpkin patch, and five-acre sunflower field provide plenty of opportunities to expand and maintain social distancing. So even in the first fall season, customers turned up en masse for a family outing.

Field of Sunflowers at Sunset at Fiddlesticks Farms

Sunflower fields, pumpkin fields, corn mazes and other attractions allow visitors to make memories and learn about agriculture.

However, he still faces several challenges. It must now “overstaff” by hiring three times as many people in case several employees are sick or exposed to COVID-19.

“I had to hire 150 people to make sure 30 people show up for a shift,” Norton said. “Now I need a full-time sanitation crew to clean picnic tables and all the other surfaces that people touch frequently. In fact, we had to remove some attractions to justify paying the sanitation crew as they are employees that we would otherwise have used to staff these attractions.

A nationwide shortage of silver and coins also made doing business difficult. For a long period of time when neighborhoods were very scarce, Norton employees offered half dollar coins as change, earning double prizes from bewildered customers.

To get around the problem, he offered incentives for buying tickets online, such as a separate entrance to avoid crowds.

Further frustrations followed this year when supply chains began to collapse.

Paper products have been difficult to source this season, leading Norton to make repeated small purchases at local grocery stores. It’s much more profitable to order wholesale for the seven separate kitchens he operates during the season, but when wholesalers couldn’t get him what he needed when he needed it, he had no other. choice than to pay more.

Norton faced another problem when he attempted to make a routine wholesale apple purchase this fall.

“We have a relationship with a farmer in Michigan who grows apples. We buy their Grade 2 apples to shoot them in our apple cannons, which is a very popular attraction here, ”Norton said. “But because there was a nationwide shortage of apples this year, the trucking industry increased its freight rates because it was in high demand. So we had to really get creative about how we order the products, how we get them here, and how we keep them in stock to meet our needs without spending an arm and a leg to do so.

Preparing for the busy farm season came with its fair share of challenges.

Even though his place is dedicated to agrotourism, he shares the struggles of a conventional farmer when it comes to inputs.

“Even though we’re a different type of farm, we still feel the effects the same,” he said.

It is also more difficult to operate the equipment.

Parts of agricultural machinery and equipment that are normally readily available take several days to arrive, if they can even be found.

He worries about what 2022 will bring as inflation continues to rise. Daily necessities like food and fuel cost more while wages remain stable, resulting in lower income available for extras like family outings.

But all he can do is keep cultivating and hoping.

He has adapted Fiddlestick Farms over the past two years in order to stay open and to create as safe an environment as possible for their customers.

And that is what he will continue to do.

“What hasn’t changed for us are our core values ​​and our mission. Our goal every year is for families to come out and create memories, ”Norton said. “Even though we had to operate differently, it’s something we’ve always worked hard for, and it’s what we’ll continue to do for as long as we can.”

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