Adapting to conditions outside of their control is nothing new for people involved in agriculture. Weather conditions, market uncertainty and government actions alter farm management decisions on a regular basis. Global pandemics, though, are uncharted territory.
“This is more disruptive than anything we could have possibly imagined,” says JoDee Haala, director of public affairs for Sleepy Eye-based Christensen Farms.
The onset of the Covid-19 outbreak and resulting disruptions have impacted nearly every U.S. citizen. Agriculture, deemed an essential industry, is not immune from those challenges. However, farmers and agribusinesses are committed to providing food for the nation and beyond, so they press on with spring field work and livestock care despite unprecedented challenges.
“If a time like this doesn’t prove to people that agriculture and feeding the world is our foundation and is extremely important, then I don’t know what would,” says Ashley Leivermann, chief human resources officer for Crystal Valley Cooperative. “I’m proud of the industry from the standpoint that it is resilient. Whatever the challenge is, we’ll adapt. We don’t have the option to not get the crop in the ground. We don’t have the option not to feed animals, because people and animals need to eat. It doesn’t matter there’s a Covid-19 outbreak going on or not. They need to eat.”
Minnesota’s livestock sector, an economic strength across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa because of prolific hog production, is facing drastic disruptions. Hog processing facilities in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota are shuttered because of Covid-19 outbreaks among plant workers. Markets for processed pork products like bacon are also in disarray because restaurants and food service venues are closed or offer takeout options only.
Some hog farmers are faced with the need to try to find willing processors to take their animals in an already taxed system. The other unthinkable option is to cull otherwise healthy animals because there’s no place to take them for processing and no place to keep them.
Farmers are adapting to new safety practices as are employers and employees in all aspects of agribusiness. From factory workers and livestock managers to sales representatives and fertilizer applicators, businesses are striving to ensure worker safety. Healthy workers are stepping up to do their jobs to produce healthy food.
GreenSeam Director Sam Ziegler isn’t surprised farmers and agribusinesses are stepping up during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Agriculture has always been a humble industry,” Ziegler says. “Just because we are now labeled as essential does not change the passion people in this industry have. There is a passion to produce cleaner energy such as ethanol. There is a passion to raise animals to nourish families near and far. There is a passion to care for the soil and work with whatever Mother Nature throws at us. There is a passion for finding solutions to grow more nourish food. Right now, more than ever there is a passion to not let fellow Americans down by keeping food on your table.”
Beyond supplying food for consumers, Haala says farmers and agribusinesses are contributing much more. Christensen Farms has donated to 17 food banks across the Midwest and is the lead partner in the Brown County United Way Project Lunchbox, which provides weekend meals to kids. A group of Christensen employees has also sewn and donated hundreds of masks.
“People want to help people,” Haala says. “You can see that evidence all over the place.”
— Dan Lemke
Madison Lake, Minn.