For Niagara County farmers, like those across the country, it’s business as usual in terms of their commitment to providing produce to food markets and farm stands. However, the coronavirus pandemic has presented them with some unprecedented challenges, according to John King, ’05, a sales consultant with Nutrien Ag Solutions, one of the largest distributors of seed, pesticides, and fertilizer for farms.
Considered an essential employee, John, who earned a B.S. in biochemistry, is still consulting with his customers to provide the resources they need to properly care for and grow their crops and update them on supply chains, product issues, crop programs, and other items associated with the agriculture industry. He also serves as president of Niagara County Farm Bureau, part of the New York Farm Bureau, lobbying and working with local and state legislators on issues important to agriculture in the political landscape, and helps out at Loho Farms, LLC, the 200-cow dairy farm owned by his brothers-in-law, when he can.
This personal and professional experience gives him a unique perspective about the anxiety the ag community is currently feeling in regard to the remainder of the year and their ability to meet the demands of a society that is equally anxious about the continuing availability of food.
John noted that in the first days following the social distancing requirement, there was an uptick in the amount of staples, such as apples, eggs, milk, and bread, being shipped, and that farmers who were still going to the Buffalo Market were seeing customers whom they did not normally see until summer. The demand has slowed a bit now that time has passed, but he said there is still an increased need that is not normal for this time of year.
Adding to the challenge of greater demand is the affect the coronavirus, and the measures to combat it, are having on the guest worker programs that provide additional manpower to help with both planting and harvesting of crops.
“Without these workers from Mexico, Jamaica, or South Africa, our farms could potentially face some very tough days ahead getting crops planted and harvested in a timely fashion,” he explained. “Here in New York, we face another enemy in that mother nature and conditions to plant are not always ideal, so we must take advantage of any good days we can. With a shortage of workers, it could make it that much more difficult. Things like worker housing inspections by the Department of Labor are being conducted virtually and are even more hampered by the wake of the shutdown. And if the farms do get their workers here, there is still the threat of them contracting the virus and facing quarantine amidst the planting season and other farm activities that need to be conducted this year.”
Farmers are a resilient group, however, and John is confident that they “will rise up to the challenge and get their crops planted on time and continue to provide Western New York with a sense of security when it comes to their food. Our cows will still produce milk; our fruit trees will still see an apple, peach, pear, and stone fruit crop; and our corn, wheat, and soybeans will still be planted this spring.”