County agriculture agents continue to aid farmers despite COVID-19 pandemic

Dan Hansen
Greg Blonde

WAUPACA – The COVID-19 pandemic has been a gut punch to farmers all across the United States. 

We’ve seen images of dairy farmers in parts of Wisconsin and Eastern states being forced to dump milk, and farmers from other states plowing under crops for which they have no market.

Despite the pandemic, farmers in central Wisconsin are receiving information and tools from their county Extension agents to help them cope with the current challenges.

Like other University of Wisconsin employees, UW Extension agriculture agents have been required to close their offices and stay at home; however, many have been continuing to provide valuable information to farmers in their area through digital platforms.

Wisconsin State Farmer spoke by phone with Greg Blonde, who has been the Waupaca County agriculture agent for more than 30 years. He says the COVID-19 pandemic presents added challenges to what have already been a challenging few years.

“More and more folks realize this is going to be something different for quite some time,” he said. “They’re concerned for their family members, employees and obviously concerned about market availability for their products.”

Despite the virus, work continues as normally as possible on most area farms, according to Blonde. “For most farmers their work is their home, so they’re used to working from home. There have already been some spring field activities taking place on lighter soils in central Wisconsin,” Blonde said.

“We’ve had a couple of farms that have been affected by milk disposal orders from their processors,” he related. “Fortunately that has not been widespread at this point.”

Market closures

Area farmers looking to sell animals may need to look farther to find a sale barn. 

“The Equity sale barn in Marion (in northern Waupaca County) is closed,” Blonde explained. “Equity also closed a sale barn in Barron County several weeks ago, so there may have been some lower volume before this virus began to spread. But certainly the challenge that we’re facing today probably helped speed that decision. So, those looking to ship animals won’t have Marion as an option, at least in the short term."

Remaining options include markets in Bonduel, Ripon, Stratford, Lomira and direct marketing into Green Bay.

“Although there are growing concerns about large processing facilities, as we’ve seen in with the hog processing plant in South Dakota, and a beef processing facility in Colorado,” Blonde cautioned. “When the disease enters their workforce, it has a ripple effect, when you lose a shift of workers, or when the whole plan has to shutdown.” 

Blonde says that area farmer continue on with normal daily activities as well as they can — whether it’s milking cows, feeding livestock or doing fieldwork.  “However, there’s real heavy concern out there certainly regarding markets and regarding employee and family member health.”

The need for feed

With farmers plowing under crops in some states, Blonde doesn’t see farmers in central Wisconsin leaving fields idle. 

“In our county, while we’re fortunate to have a real blend of farming enterprises, our industry still is heavily based on dairy and cattle," said Blonde. "From the cash-grain folks I’ve talked to, leaving fields go idle is not something I’ve heard.”

There are also obvious challenges with leaving fields idle as well, not the least of which is weed pressure. “If you’re going to be out there controlling weeds, you might as well have the crop going in there too,” Blonde said.

Feed inventories from dairy and livestock standpoint, and feed inventories in general, were at a 30-year low last year. “So we have some opportunities to be able to build back some of those feed inventories, and if we have fewer animals to feed that inventory could grow back quicker,” he said.

Blonde reported that a number of dairy and livestock operations in eastern Waupaca County and in the Fox Valley and lakeshore areas had an unprecedented number of acres that could not be planted last year because of wet field conditions.

“Feed inventories in those areas have been extremely challenged. There are a number of farms looking for an early spring to try to get some winter wheat harvested as forage but certainly hoping and praying for a good early crop of hay,” he said. “We’ve gotten more calls about alternative forages. There’s going to be a lot of ryegrass interseeded into fields that were impacted last year, and trying to save those another year before rotating.”

Emails and web information

Blonde and his counterparts in other counties have been getting information to farmers electronically. Several email blasts are being sent to farmers with information on resources currently available to provide assistance during this crisis. This resource information is also posted on the Extension website.

“Information focuses on timely crop management decisions that need to be made at this time of year,” he emphasized. “There’s a series of videos on the Extension’s YouTube channel, including crop budgeting and marketing plans in low-margin years. Some strategies for corn production in years with low price projections, soybean inputs that deliver higher return on investments in low-margin years, weed management strategies, tillage considerations that can help reduce costs. Those are all short videos accessible through one link.”

Also included are timely researched-based recommendations regarding seeding rates for corn, soybeans and forages, even a piece on calibrating the grain drill for seeding those forage crops.

The Paycheck Protection Program is also available to farmers and other ag professionals if additional funding is provided. However, it’s necessary to apply through your local lender.

There’s also information on how to protect farm families and farm workers from COVID-19 exposure, and minimizing risks while handling farm products and containers, including fact sheets in both English and Spanish.

“There’s also a fact sheet from the DNR if your farm has to deal with disposal of milk. Be aware of the guidelines that are out there on how to go about doing that,” Blonde advised.

This information, and more, is available online at: “Click on the Covid-19 resource page which will show not only the ag resources available but also some ideas for youth, families and community development in general,” he added.

Blonde also recalled another disastrous situation that caused problems for some local farmers — the trail derailment and fire that occurred in the City of Weyauwega 24 years ago. 

“Rather than having to stay put at home, people in the local area back then were under a mandatory evacuation. The challenge for many was getting permission to even go back to their farms to care for their animals,” he said.

“But back in 1996 we didn’t have the computers and cell phones that we have today so, in some regards, we’re better situated now to work remotely and still keep in contact with farmers.”