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Pandemic impacts on farming

Published: Aug. 19, 2020 at 8:24 PM CDT
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ATHENS, Wis. (WSAW) - The farming industry as a whole already faces a unique set of challenges including weather forces and market pricing changes; the COVID-19 pandemic just adds to the mix. However, different types of farming are impacted in different ways.

Red Door Family Farm in Athens is a first-generation organic farm that has been in operation for about six years. It sells produce directly to consumers through the Wausau Farmers Market, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, and a few local restaurants.

“There were a lot of supply chain disruptions, especially early on and they’re still having lots of ripple effects and we just wanted to make sure people could count on us,” Tenzin Botsford, the co-owner said.

With restaurants closing for long periods in the beginning, only offering take-out, and having limited dining-in options, restaurants have purchased less food overall. However, Botsford said their CSA customers (people who pay for food shares ahead of the season) have remained consistent as more people cook from home. The tricky part was how to get that food to their CSA members as dropoff places like the YMCA closed. Farmers markets like the winter farmers market in Wausau closed down as well, meaning food weekly could not get to customers.

Eventually, Wausau’s summer outdoor farmers market opened up and businesses facilitating the CSA drop off figured out ways to open. In the meantime, Botsford said they opened a market on their farm property and began an online store option, which he said was a challenging endeavor.

In addition, they have experienced many of the same challenges most of society has faced with the pandemic including how to keep employees and customers safe and how to manage school demands for children.

“We don’t have a very deep bench, you know. It’s a small crew and everyone works really hard and it’s really hard for somebody to even take a day off let alone if somebody’s out sick,” he stated.

He said the farm was designed around the local CSA model, which has kept them fairly stable compared to other types of farming that depend on wider markets and big processors. Big suppliers of schools and restaurants caused a decrease in demand, leaving dairy processors with no place to send their products. Some meat processors saw virus outbreaks causing them to close for a period of time and leaving farmers with no place to send their animals. Foreign markets have also been volatile as travel bans and restrictions stop or limit supply.

Dr. Florence Becot, an associate researcher with the National Farm Medicine Center inside the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute said for some, health insurance issues have escalated too. In 2017 she was part of a research team that concluded that “health insurance is key to farm and ranch economic viability.” The research found of that group of farmers surveyed, “over half (59%) of farm and ranch families receive benefits through public sector employers (health, education, government). Changes in public sector employment options or benefits will affect the economic and social well-being of farm and ranch families and rural communities.”

Applying that to today, Becot said many public sector positions typically considered to be crisis-resistant like health care workers were furloughed or laid off even if temporarily. Access to medical care also changed with more rural clinics closed as elective procedures ceased.

Telehealth, she said, has improved access to mental health resources, however. It removed some of the barriers including the potential of long drives to a therapist meaning farmers were away from their fields for hours and stigma-related concerns like being seen in public going to a clinic. Speaking with doctors at Marshfield Clinic, she was told several farmers said to them that they would not have sought help if the telehealth option was not available.

Living a lifestyle where there already so many factors that are out of their control, one that can more solitary, and markets that could cause them to close, farmers take in a lot of stress as it is, but they can be resilient.

“We do really need to check in on people, I think, and maybe you can’t go give them a hug right now, but give them a phone call and check in and just see how people are doing,” Botsford said.

If you need immediate assistance with mental health concerns, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, Harvest of Hope at 1-608-836-1455, the WI Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection Farm Center 1-800-942-2474, Covering Wisconsin – County Community Resources, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357.

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