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Farmers work to keep up, keep well during pandemic

Associated Press
Steve Groff cleans up one of the high tunnels, as they get ready to plant tomatoes on his farm in Martic Township, Pa.

MOUNT JOY, Pa. (AP) – Old farmhouses dot Arlin Benner's 950-acre Lancaster County dairy operation.

They're remnants of the multiple properties that now make up Benner's Yippee Farms, based in Mount Joy.

It's in those houses that farm workers live, keeping close to Benner's cows. They stay close in case there's an emergency, he said.

It's also in those houses that Benner has asked his employees to remain as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across Pennsylvania, the United States and the rest of the world.

"We've requested that they not leave except for essential purchases," he said, adding that widespread illness among his workers could cripple the operation. "That's my biggest fear."

Similar precautions are being implemented on farms across Lancaster County in an attempt to keep life-sustaining food flowing to markets and grocery stores, where panicked shoppers are quickly buying up stock.

According to industry leaders, local farmers should have no problem fulfilling that goal, but they also admit there could be obstacles, including disruptions to migrant workforces and transportation services.

"We recognize that this isn't going to go away anytime soon," said Don Ranck, president of the Lancaster County Farm Bureau. "Food still has to be produced."

'Our life hasn't changed much'

It was early Wednesday when Benner spoke about Yippee Farms, his 3,500-animal operation that spans five locations in Lancaster and Chester counties.

There, about 30 employees work to ensure cows can be milked three times a day and that their products are shipped for consumption, Benner said.

In recent weeks those employees have been encouraged to use hand sanitizer and to keep their distance from one another, he said. Unnecessary visitors also have been banned from his property.

"We just shut down anybody coming onto the farm," Benner said.

The new rules are in line with guidelines from medical experts, who touted handwashing and social distancing as ways to combat the contagious coronavirus.

For Stephen Hershey, owner of Bridge Valley Farm in Columbia, social distancing — which asks people to remain 6 feet apart — is nothing new. His few workers are often separated among different chicken houses while tending to 400,000 egg-laying hens.

"We are not working in a real confined, tight kind of space," he said.

On top of that, most farmers already adhere to strict health and safety guidelines to stave off harmful bacteria like salmonella and illnesses like avian flu, experts said.

"Our life hasn't changed much," Hershey said. "This is what we do all of the time."

Later, however, Hershey conceded there have been changes. Wiping down door handles has become part of the daily routine, and employees have been instructed not to come to work if even their children or spouses are sick.

Dave Groff drives his tractor through a field of buffalo on his farm in Martic Township, Pa.

'Demand is overrunning supply'

There has been another notable change, Hershey also admitted: Profits are up.

At grocery stores across the country, eggs have been a top-seller, with customers hoarding them in high quantities as they hunker down indoors, hoping to avoid the potentially deadly respiratory virus.

"Demand is overrunning supply," Hershey said. "Everybody is running on eggs, and there is no inventory left."

Each chicken can lay only one egg per day, a pace not fast enough to keep up with new buying habits, he said.

The same is true across the region, according to Guy Martin, with Sauder's Eggs, a Lititz-based processing company that grades, cleans and packages millions of eggs from farmers like Hershey each week.

Martin, who's seen inventory drop from a surplus to a deficit, was baffled as he spoke about consumers' renewed interest in eggs that has followed the virus' arrival in the state.

"I don't know how many eggs they can eat," he said, expressing his disbelief.

Panic buying is a practice state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding has warned against.

"Please don't hoard the food," he said in a recent address. "Don't buy more than you need. Go back to normal patterns, and that will allow the food system to catch up."

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Joel Rotz said milk, as well as certain meats and vegetables, have seen a similar spike in sales.

"It seems like folks have really returned to basics," he said.

However, Benner was quick to point out that an increase in sales doesn't always translate to heightened profits. In fact, milk prices are down, he said, attributing that in part to a decrease in powdered milk exports that followed COVID-19's spread.

Similarly, the celebrated mushroom-growing market in Avondale, Chester County, also has seen a drop in demand as restaurant business slows, according to Hershey.

Hershey typically supplies the farmers with old hay and corn fodder used in the mushroom-growing process. Now, those farmers are no longer accepting his waste.

'There's always winners in a crisis'

The way Steve Groff sees it, "there's always winners in a crisis," as well as losers. During the ongoing pandemic, it seems local farmers fill both roles.

Groff runs the Holtwood-based Cedar Meadow Farm, where he and his employees grow vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, squash and pumpkins on 200-plus acres.

Unlike the egg and dairy farmers, Groff said his busy season is only just beginning. Within the next few weeks, planting will begin. And on his farm, Groff said, he's often relied on a labor force made up of about a dozen migrant workers.

With growing virus-related restrictions on international travel, Groff worries that finding out-of-country laborers will become more difficult or even impossible.

Those concerns exist across the state, especially on large dairy and crop farms, Rotz said. Rotz offered assurances that agriculture-focused lobbyists have consistently made those concerns clear to state and federal government officials.

That includes U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who earlier this month said officials were aware of the issue and working on it. And so far, migrant workers have been excluded from a ban that limits non-essential travel between the United States and Mexico, according to Homeland Security documents.

Still, Groff worries that the travel ban could become more restrictive, which he said will become a problem during the summer months when timely harvest schedules must be followed. If the workforce doesn't exist, vegetables could begin to rot before they are picked, he said.

With that said, Groff is looking to another potential workforce, as well — the hundreds of people laid off from their jobs when state Gov. Tom Wolf recently ordered non-essential businesses closed. It's unclear exactly when that shutdown will end.

"This year could be a little different," Groff said. "There are a ton of people who have been laid off already. … I certainly am keeping track of those people."

Minor disruptions

But it's not only a workforce that local farmers are dependent on, said Kaleb Long, one of the Lancaster County Farm Bureau's vice presidents.

Likely to the average consumers' surprise, Long described the agriculture industry as a fragile system reliant on tight schedules, reliable transportation and available supplies, including feed, seed, fertilizers and pesticides.

Long works for Nutrien Ag Solutions, a company that supplies many of those products to farmers across the country. So far, he said, the distribution of those products has gone on relatively unimpeded.

However, Long pointed out that he's begun to see minor disruptions, specifically a shortage of warehouse space.

Warehouses, he said, are filled with inventory that would have typically been shipped to businesses that have been forced to close due to the ongoing pandemic. That limits space for his company's products.

That plays into the fears of some farmers who worry that trucking companies also will be impacted by the illness, slowing or halting the transportation of goods to and from their operations.

That's all in addition to rumors repeated by more than one farmer, who've said they heard there are shortages of certain farm equipment maintenance parts that are manufactured in countries like China and Italy, which have been drastically impacted by the virus.

Among rumors, one thing is for sure, Rotz said: Farmers will continue to keep Americans fed.

"They enjoy kind of being heroes right now," he said. "I think people are thinking a lot now about the need to have a good food supply and where it comes from."