Colorado farms face new worries as coronavirus threatens food supply

YUMA — As the coronavirus pandemic gripped much of Colorado, it was largely business as usual on the Anchor Three Farm on Wednesday afternoon. Just days ahead of the start of spring planting, a tractor-pulled disc and packer prepared the soil by thrashing through the remnants of last year’s corn crop.

But this year’s prospects are filled with uncertainty. The farms and ranches that produce our food — arguably the most essential of businesses — may be exempt from the state’s shutdown orders, but they haven’t been immune to the virus’ growing economic effects. Farmers face new hardships that threaten to staunch the flow of food to consumers.

Anxiety punctuates nearly every conversation.

Don and Peggy Brown, the owners of Anchor Three, worry about suddenly falling corn prices. They also wonder if feedlots and meat-packing plants will still be open soon when it’s time to send off their yearling steers. They saw the recent temporary closure of a JBS meat-packing plant in Greeley, site of a major outbreak among the workers, as a warning signal — the latest on top of long-standing challenges, including a drought in eastern Colorado.

“The real problem is it was dry late last summer as well,” said Tyson Brown, their 35-year-old son, inside the large family farm’s cavernous machinery shop. “We didn’t get any help (from nature) re-establishing the grass. And so it was dry last fall, it’s dry this spring and, well, commodities are in the tank.”

Added Don, his voice filled with nervous laughter: “And we’ve got this damn virus! As if we had a problem, we’ve (now) got a virus here.”

Survey farmers and ranchers across the Eastern Plains and on the state’s Western Slope, and the anxieties spill forth. Many of them live in sparsely populated counties that have been spared outbreaks — Yuma County has held steady for weeks at just two confirmed cases — but they worry their very livelihoods are at stake if the pandemic drags on for too long.

“Within the last three weeks, the price that we’re selling lamb for has dropped about 60%,” said Angelo “Butch” Theos, 72, a third-generation rancher in northwest Colorado.

Last week, he and his son, Anthony, 41, were trailing their flock of nearly 4,000 sheep back to Meeker from their winter grazing lands on a high-desert plateau near Rangely. Soon it will be lambing season, and in July they’ll move the flock high into the mountains to the east for the hot months.

For both activities, they usually rely on five hardy and trusted sheep-herders, longtime seasonal employees from Peru who are willing to do a tough job that locals in Rio Blanco County won’t. But two had their worker visas up over the winter and now face a new hurdle: Peru is on lockdown, and they can’t get back to Colorado this month, as they’d planned.

“I’m hoping and praying we get our guys back by May 1,” Anthony Theos said. If they’re still short-handed in July, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Seismic jolt from pandemic

There’s complexity in the coronavirus impact on agricultural markets, as the food industry already had weathered unstable commodities prices for years, especially during recent U.S. tariff battles. And the recent plunge in gas prices has lowered demand for ethanol, affecting corn prices.

But the pandemic delivered a seismic jolt, analysts say, much like it has for the rest of the economy. In this case, farmers face new challenges in getting the food they produce to grocery stores, especially as the coronavirus has sickened workers who are key to the industrial side of the industry.

“We’re real concerned about the packing plant thing — real concerned,” said Don Brown, 65, who served as state agricultural commissioner during former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s second term.

And the JBS plant wasn’t the first. Among other closures are plants operated in South Dakota and Missouri by Smithfield Foods, a pork producer that also has hog farms near Yuma. Cargill has reduced shifts at its Fort Morgan meat-packing plant after COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, hit the facility.

But the more immediate effect has been on traditional supply lines.

According to CoBank, which tracks agricultural trends, grocery stores typically sell 48% of food nationally. Virtually overnight, that proportion shot to nearly 90% as state and local governments ended dine-in service at restaurants and hotels and school cafeterias closed down. Food processors that serve those customers couldn’t find new paths to consumers instantly.

About half of lamb typically goes to restaurants, one factor in the sudden price drop cited by Theos. Some lamb and high-end beef ranchers in Colorado have shifted to direct orders to try to make up the lost restaurant business.

That is just the beginning of the uncertainty.

“We’re all kind of not sure what’s happening or where we’re at or where things are going to go,” said Taylor Szilagyi, the Colorado Farm Bureau’s director of policy communications. “Ag is open for business, but it’s not quite business as usual. We have to take care of our livestock, we’ve got to get ready for planting — but how do we operate in this new world?”

Even as the public flocked to grocery stores, leading to temporary shortages of many products, some farmers — especially in warmer states with year-round growing seasons — have had to junk vegetables, eggs and milk that their longtime bulk customers no longer needed.

In Yuma, the Lungwitz family felt that pain. It owns the large Yuma Dairy, which so far has been spared the pandemic’s wrath. But co-owner Jeremiah Lungwitz said the family’s other dairy, in western Nebraska, dumped three semitrailer loads of milk recently. Its processor, which provides bulk cheese packages and other large-quantity items for restaurants, got backed up and couldn’t take it.

“You’re dealing with a raw, unpasteurized product” that can’t be repurposed easily for donations to food banks or for grocery sales, Lungwitz said, adding the dairies have had to transition fast. “We can’t shut the cows off overnight and say ‘Hey, there’s no home for your milk now.’ Logistically, it’s just been a struggle.”

Rural areas weather pandemic, too

The irony of excess milk hasn’t been lost on local business owners in Yuma who have struggled with shortages or price hikes.

Meghann Blach, who owns Farm House Market, a coffee shop, and is the daughter of dairy farm owners, said she’s been paying $4.50 a gallon for milk, “which is unbelievably ridiculous.” And Anna Wenger, the co-owner of Paper Moon Pizzeria, said an early hurdle as the restaurant has transitioned to all take-out was the need to switch to another brand of mozzarella because the usual kind suddenly wasn’t available from her supplier.

Yuma County and Rio Blanco County, which has had a single confirmed case, aren’t far from coronavirus hot spots — Morgan County in the northeast and Garfield County on the Western Slope each have had dozens of cases — making clear that they’re not immune just because they’re small.

Local officials say they’re terrified their small hospitals would quickly become overwhelmed if a coronavirus outbreak hit. Both communities also worry about outsiders passing through — so much so that Yuma County’s commissioners successfully lobbied Colorado Parks and Wildlife to delay the start of turkey-hunting season within its borders by a month, until May 2. It was the only county that did so.

And all Colorado counties have been affected by the state’s stay-at-home order. Recent analyses of mobile phone location data by Google and The New York Times, however, suggested both Yuma and Rio Blanco were among outlying counties where travel and movement didn’t tamp down as quickly in March as they did in more-populated areas.

In Meeker, “we did experience everything you guys did,” Mayor Regas Halandras told The Denver Post, including initial shortages of toilet paper and some foods. “The difference is we only have one grocery store and the next one’s a 40-mile trip.”

Cows provide lesson in social distancing

Back in Yuma last week, some locals suggested efforts at social distancing weren’t being taken as seriously there.

Not so for the Browns, who say the concept is vital for those who raise cattle.

When they bring in several thousand calves to wean, they can’t just mix the new calves all together, or with the rest of their cows. They maintain absolute separation between smaller groups numbering in the hundreds.

“They all come from different places, so they’ve all got a little bit different immunities … and they may have a little bit of a copper deficiency from the place they came from,” Don Brown said. “We don’t dump them all together and see what happens — because we know what will happen.” When a contagious virus or disease hits one group, “it’ll walk through them all.”

“We’ve been doing social distancing with cattle for a long time,” he said.

And now his farm is trying to do it with people. That’s easier on a farm, but even food producers that have workers in tighter quarters, such as Yuma Dairy, say they’re doing the best they can to keep employees safe — and the food supply stocked.

Some farmers, uncertain what to plant this year, worry the pandemic will usher in a long-winded crisis. The Browns recalled years of struggle in the 1980s, when the last major U.S. farming crisis stretched on for years.

“Sometimes you just should hunker down and ride it through,” said Peggy Brown, 63. “My husband and I, we did that through the ’80s. … Really, we’re going to be fine. It’s just really, really hard on a lot of people.”

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