Coronavirus: Plummeting crop prices putting local farmers in a bind

In his decades of farming, Brian Harbage has never been in such a dire situation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to plummeting crop prices and shuttered processing plants, leaving him with nearly worthless products.

“We’re actually going to plant our crop at a loss before we put the first seed in the ground at today’s prices,” Harbage said.

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Harbage isn’t alone. Farmers across the state are facing losses due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus. He says this year will be “very tough for farmers to weather.”

Farmers who raise both crops and livestock are in a difficult situation, Sam Custer, an educator with Ohio State’s Darke County extension, said. As restaurants and schools were shut down by the pandemic, farmers were left with excess product that went to waste. He said some farmers had to dump milk because they weren’t able to send it to suppliers.

“It’s just a terrible, terrible situation,” Custer said. “Farm stress levels now are probably approaching the level we were in the early ’80s.”

Custer emphasized that there isn’t a shortage of meat or crops, although panicked buyers cleared store shelves in the early days of the pandemic. He said farms are as productive as ever, but a massive supply chain disruption means many farmers are left with animals they can’t use.

Not all farmers have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. Brandi Anderson runs Women That Farm, a Mechanicsburg-based farm that sells a variety of meats at local farmers markets and by delivery. While some of the farmers markets they rely on have been postponed, Anderson says her farm has seen increased demand for deliveries.

“My customer-base has blown up,” Anderson said, adding that she’s seen community members going out of their way to support local businesses like hers.

Anderson acknowledged, however, that farms relying only on farmers markets would be hard-hit.

“Dublin is on hold, and that’s my biggest market,” Anderson said. “So, potentially, there was about a $5,000 a month loss there.”

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Some of farmers’ inevitable losses might be offset by government aid.

Last week, a group of senators, including Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, urged the United States Department of Agriculture to send relief funds to local farmers.

The senators urged the USDA to ensure the nearly $20 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, reaches all local farmers who’ve been hit hard by the pandemic.

“By adjusting the mechanism USDA uses to calculate CFAP payments for local food producers, changing the covered time period to reflect those losses experienced after April 15, 2020, and implementing a robust and inclusive outreach plan to reach all local food producers, including new farmers, we can help minimize the significant burden

COVID-19 has placed on our local producers,” Brown and other senators wrote in a letter to the USDA.

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Ohio farmers haven’t had time to recover from a disastrous growing season in 2019. A wet spring pushed back planting across the state and led to terrible yields last year. Clark County Commissioner Melanie Flax Wilt said many farmers were hopeful going into 2020, but added that the pandemic has quashed many of those hopes.

“We are coming off of one of the toughest years in recent history for farmers, with low prices and very challenging weather,” Flax Wilt said.

Government assistance was offered after last year’s bad growing season - but farmers still lost more than $500 million even after insurance payments and federal disaster assistance, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

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