SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — There is plenty for farmers to be fearful of during the COVID-19 response. The American Farm Bureau Federation reports crop and animal prices are “falling to levels that threaten the livelihoods of many U.S. farmers and ranchers.”
Demand from restaurants, schools and other institutions has plummeted. People are driving less, which the AFBF said has driven down demand for ethanol, a corn-based biofuel. That means less ethanol is being produced, so ranchers who relied on the grain byproducts are “scrambling to replace that source of animal feed,” according to a column by bureau president Vincent Duvall.
In the face of what seems like a never-ending barrage of new challenges, though, agricultural workers are doing what they do best: farming.
“Farmers are pretty resilient,” Austin Chapin said. “But we knew that we cannot take time off. We can’t just stop working because when we stop working we’ll miss a season, and a season is a whole year’s worth of food.”
Chapin is a fourth-generation farmer in Marion County. He owns and manages Chapin Orchards, where his family farms about 700 acres of cherries and hazelnuts. Their season ramps up in June and early July, when they will hire about 150 people to spend 12 hours a day picking the fruit. He said it’s always a challenge getting employees, and the coronavirus response has only exacerbated that, especially since the majority of his seasonal workers come from California and Mexico.
“Are they going to be able to make it? Are they going to be healthy?” Chapin wonders. “We just don’t know yet.”
Chapin said he and other farmers have contemplated contingency plans. Hiring high schoolers is one option, though Chapin says state regulations make that difficult.
“Labor is a hard commodity to come by,” he said.
Chapin said he was concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 from the get-go.
“It’s scary,” he said. “You know as much as we’d like to, we can’t predict or control the future … Agriculture’s all about faith, in my opinion. I mean, we provide the nutrients and everything that we can, but it’s not like we actually make things grow … Mother Nature doesn’t work for us, we work for Mother Nature.”
The public forgets how essential agricultural workers are sometimes, according to Anne Marie Moss, communications director for the Oregon Farm Bureau. That’s part of the reason the OFB is encouraging local farmers and ranchers to participate in the national #stillfarming campaign by sharing photos and videos of themselves out in the fields.
“Just to remind and reassure the public that their food supply is going to be uninterrupted and secure thanks to hardworking families in agriculture,” Moss said.
Despite the struggles facing farmers and ranchers, Chapin’s message is one of gratitude. Gratitude for his wife, Leanna, now tasked with looking after their three young sons all day. Gratitude for the teachers who previously had that responsibility. Gratitude for the nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, repair workers, service workers and more.
“It’s incredible how much appreciation you can gather when you’re in a real hardship,” he said.