Maryland ag industry learning to cope in crisis
The agricultural industry has been abruptly turned upside-down by the coronavirus pandemic, members of the Maryland Agricultural Commission said Wednesday.
From the Eastern Shore poultry industry to the state’s broader livestock and forestry sectors, representatives said producers continue to struggle with the consequences, both good and bad, of a virus that shuttered schools and nonessential businesses in March.
“Everybody’s trying to hang in there. Tough times,” Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said during the commission’s monthly meeting on May 13. “Farmers are really resilient. … As long as there’s a hope and a prayer, they’re going to keep doing what is their passion in life.”
The meeting was held via conference call rather than inside a room on the first floor of Maryland Department of Agriculture headquarters where commission members would not have been socially distant.
Viral breakouts inside poultry processing facilities on the Shore have scared many workers away from the production line, leading to slowdowns and bird backups on farms across the region, said Michael Levengood, one of the commission’s two poultry representatives.
“Companies now have to balance what they think their labor situation is going to be with what’s coming in,” he said. “It’s not a demand issue. It’s a bottleneck of the harvest plants.”
Fortunately, poultry farmers, many of whom already work in relative isolation, have largely escaped infection, Levengood said.
The same can’t be said of their mood, said Michelle Protani-Chesnik, another poultry representative.
“The stress out here for growers in the field has been unbelievable,” she said.
Farmers are having trouble purchasing personal protection equipment, such as N95 masks, from suppliers, she said. She and Levengood both lamented the more than 2 million chickens depopulated in Maryland and Delaware last month, an action that received nationwide media attention. Both said they hoped supply chain disruptions are short-term, lasting no more than one flock cycle.
Local slaughterhouses, however, are “up to their eyeballs in product,” said Sean Hough, the commission’s livestock representative. Their retail operations are generating customer lines out the door and are so busy that producers are increasingly turning to the export market if they can’t find domestic packers, he said.
This has become a problem for 4-H groups. Although some are holding virtual livestock auctions, packing plants have begun telling fairs they will be accepting fewer animals after sale, Hough said.
Local farmers and food operations surveyed by Grow & Fortify, which operates several value-added trade associations in Maryland, have also experienced massive disruptions, said Kelly Dudeck, the commission’s agritourism representative. More than 60 percent of surveyed growers have had to lay off an employee, and nearly 90 percent of their retail sales are being delivered, she said.
With the state’s business restrictions now loosening, producers with operations such as restaurants and tasting rooms also face the forthcoming challenge of re-opening responsibly. Many restaurants are discussing reducing occupancy by half, Dudeck said, and tasting rooms are investigating whether disposable wine glasses might be a new necessity.
A worldwide construction slowdown, a lack of export business in the United States and production cuts at lumber mills are likely to hurt the forest products sector, said Beth Hill, the commission’s forestry representative.
“Unfortunately, I think that these conditions are going to lead to too much wood in the pipeline,” she said.
A similar problem — excessive supply — exists in the dairy industry.
“The dairy situation is grimmer by the day,” said Tom Mullineaux, the commission’s agribusiness representative. “Nobody can do anything about that except open schools.”
He also said he’s seeing “belt tightening” in the fertilizer and crop protection industries. On the seed side, some outlets are increasingly concerned about farmers’ ability to pay, particularly when bills for spring inputs on corn and soybeans arrive next month.
But the virus has been good for business in the horticultural and landscaping industries, both sector representatives said.
“Our business is booming right now,” Keith Ohlinger, the horticulture representative, said regretfully, while considering the struggles of other producers.
However, with housing starts down by a quarter, the turf and sod industries are hurting, said Tom Warpinsky, the commission’s turf representative. But the virus isn’t without silver lining.
“Traffic has been fantastic all throughout the state, making our deliveries,” he said.
Protani-Chesnik said she was clinging to any good news.
“This is a time when anything positive lightens everybody’s heart,” she said.
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