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Price-takers, not price-makers: Orange County farmers make the best of tough situation

ORANGE — Of all the things farmers worry about, getting hit by a pandemic typically is not high on the list. But that changed when the novel coronavirus rattled the food supply chain along with everything else. Some large meat-packing plants have closed temporarily or cut production hours. Restaurants have closed or reduced service. Colleges, universities and K-12 schools that once reliably purchased large quantities of milk and food also are closed.

As a result, cattle farmers aren’t getting the prices they had expected and neither are dairy farmers. And with people driving less due to stay-at-home orders, the demand for fuel has dropped and ethanol factories aren’t buying as much corn — a blow to those who raise row crops.

Local farmers expressed disappointment and resignation during recent phone interviews even as they acknowledged that variables and surprises are the nature of their business and said they are determined to keep going as best they can.

Unionville farmer Ron Burleson has 40 head of cattle and a greenhouse business. He said cattle prices have tanked due to problems at the packing plants. In January he sold some cull cows — typically used to make hamburger — for “close to 60 cents a pound.” Now, he hears that cull cows bring about half that price.

Burleson said there also is a backlog of fed cattle. “The feed yards that buy the cattle are full and have nowhere to go with what they’ve got.”

And farmers can’t just demand the prices they need to make a profit or at least break even: “Farmers have always been price-takers, not price-makers. They take whatever the market will give them,” Burleson said.

From what he’s gathered, packing plants in the pork, beef and poultry industry all are struggling because workers ill with COVID-19 can’t come in and do their jobs.

“It’s going to be [hard] for a lot of people, especially in the livestock industry, if you don’t have anywhere to go with [the animals] when they’re ready to go. It’s kind of a bad situation,” Burleson said.

Cattle farmers will be stuck feeding animals they had expected to sell at a certain time and at a certain weight, he said.

As for his own cattle, he said, “I’ll figure out a way to sell them. We’ll move them when the time comes to move them. I won’t be selling any calves until the fall. I feel sorry for people who’ve got to move stuff right now. It’s gotta be terrible.”

On the other side of the ledger book, Burleson’s greenhouse business is doing fine. He’s grateful the governor didn’t shutter garden supply stores as part of the statewide closure of non-essential businesses.

He sells pansies early in the spring and again in the fall. Right now, he’s selling begonias, vincas, combination flower baskets and hanging baskets to garden centers, many of them in Northern Virginia and Charlottesville. He has sold out of marigolds, a reliable favorite among backyard gardeners.

Steve Hopkins, a retired agriculture agent for Orange County’s extension office, is closely monitoring the impact of the pandemic on farming. He keeps 250 head of beef cattle and helps market cattle for the Central Virginia Cattleman’s Association.

The Louisa resident said it doesn’t matter what kinds of cattle are being marketed right now — they’re all selling for $200 to $250 less than they were a year ago. With packing plants running on reduced schedules, a glut of cattle has depressed prices. He added that some dairy farmers unable to sell their milk have been culling their animals and adding to the surfeit of cattle on the market.

“You still have to keep selling your animals when you normally do,” Hopkins said, pointing out that attempting to second-guess the market simply doesn’t work. “You don’t have a whole lot of control over what you get for the product. That’s the unfortunate part.”

Dairy farmer Molly Elgin-McWilliams, of True Blue, said her family business is “hanging in there” due to one crucial factor: “Fortunately, we have been able to keep shipping milk. It’s a great thing for us and a blessing.”

The Elgin dairy farm’s milk goes to a Maola milk plant in Newport News. The plant mainly processes liquid milk (as opposed to powdered milk, cheese and butter) and puts it in gallon jugs, Elgin-McWilliams said.

With schools closed across the U.S., the demand for pint-sized milk cartons has dropped. Elgin-McWilliams said processing plants that typically package milk in those small paper containers “can’t switch on a dime” and start bottling gallon jugs for grocery stores.

Even with a reliable purchaser for the farm’s milk, Elgin-McWilliams said things are far from ideal. For the past five years, she said, milk prices for dairy farmers have not been “the greatest.”

“Coming into 2020, we thought it was going to be our year for getting a better milk price,” she said. “Then this pandemic hit. Restaurants, schools shut down. Milk prices bottomed out again. It’s tough.”

Elgin-McWilliams, 26, is the youngest daughter of Jim and Terri Elgin. They have 190 cows that they milk three times a day. She said her family is worried about the state of agriculture in general as prices drop across the industry.

But on the plus side, she said consumers are becoming more conscious of where their food comes from and many are looking around for other sources besides supermarkets.

There’s more interest in the “grow local movement,” she said, which could help grassroots cattle farmers who sell meat directly to consumers.

“Produce farmers are going to have an excellent year, which is great for them,” she added.

Monk Sanford runs Kenwood LLC in Orange. He has 240 cows for milking and 900 to 950 head of beef cattle. He, too, ships milk to the Maola plant in Newport News and said sale of milk in gallon jugs is the best deal for dairy farmers. Those who sold dried milk powder and other dairy products to buyers overseas have lost that share of their business during the pandemic, he said.

Like Elgin-McWilliams, Sanford said the past five years have been tough on dairy farmers. Tariffs hurt milk prices, and competition from milk-like products made from almond and soy also deflated the price of cow’s milk, he said. The one bright spot during this period, he said, was that big retailers like McDonald’s had begun using butter instead of margarine and many consumers were buying butter, due to scientific studies pointing to the benefits of dairy fat.

Having a buyer for his liquid milk helps, but Sanford admitted he is worried: “I will say it’s a very bleak time for all agriculture right now.”

Orange County’s extension agents remain convinced that farmers will weather the pandemic just as they have weathered countless other crises, but they are realistic.

Courtney Wesner, the county’s agricultural agent, said, “Agriculture commodities markets have seen downward moves across the board and significant volatility since the arrival of COVID-19.”

She is aware of the difficulties beef cattle farmers are facing. However, spring rain has provided lush green grass for hungry cows that normally would have been sold by now.

Another bit of cheer: “Live cattle futures markets have recovered some as boxed beef prices in the supermarket move higher due to significant consumer demand during this time,” Wesner said.

In a rallying cry for farmers in Orange County and beyond, she said, “They are hardwired and bred to weather tough times and economic pitfalls. They have successfully navigated times of fear and uncertainty many times before; in fact, through generations — all of that with the simple goal in mind of providing the nation with safe, wholesome products to put on their family’s supper table at the end of the day.

“That’s exactly what our guys and gals in the Orange County farming community are doing right now, as we speak. They are bravely staying the course, just like they always have.”


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