Depending upon what type of farmer you talk to, the pandemic has been either a boon or bane for the business of agriculture.
The value of New Hampshire’s agricultural industry is approximately $850 million, and exports of food and agricultural products total over $22 million annually, according to the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food.
Across the state, the demand for local food — meats, vegetables, dairy and other agricultural products — is up. It comes during a time of year when farmers normally run lean and are accruing expenses getting ready for the growing season.
The loss of industry from the shuttering of dining rooms has been more than replaced by retail sales, according to some local farmers.
LOCAL DEMAND RISING
Mark Florenz, owner of Archway Farm in Keene — where he raises pigs on pasture (which are Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World) — says he’s easily doubled his regular sales at his farm store over what he’d typically expect in six to eight weeks.
“Infrequent shoppers are now more frequent,” he notes.
His business is a mix of retail and wholesale, although the loss of wholesale accounts due to COVID-19 has been minimal with little impact economically.
Because slaughterhouses struggle to keep up with demand since the pandemic arrived, leaving meat cases nearly empty at grocery stores, Florenz says customers have come to him instead.
Plus, he notes, customers feel Archway Farm meat is safer because far fewer hands touch it. That reason stands for any farm product that’s in high demand right now.
Most importantly, he adds, people are cooking more at home.
The increased demand is welcome, says Florenz, but he can’t double his livestock overnight.
“It’s not changing what we’re producing,” he says. “Our model is to have all pigs be born and raised on the farm.”
The farm’s position is in good shape in terms of inventory and livestock in the pipeline.
“We’re being careful with what we sell wholesale,” says Florenz. “We’re communicating to everybody what’s available.”
He began carrying a lot more perishables in addition to his pork products — veggies, bread, milk — to offset the meat demand.
We never had the foot traffic to move (those products), but now we do. It’s all good for us. It’s a matter of managing it.”
He also doesn’t anticipate this new daily rush to last more than six months, although he hopes it will change people’s shopping habits to include more local food.
Sarah Costa, of Manning Hill Farm in Winchester, has been so busy since COVID-19 arrived they’ve had to limit customers to buying only 10 pounds of ground beef until they can get more animals processed and fulfill the next batch of orders.
“The problem is local slaughterhouses get so booked up I have to make an appointment a year in advance,” says Costa. “I’m getting orders and selling beef faster than can get animals processed.”
Fortunately, the farm’s customers are willing to wait.
Gail McWilliam Jellie, director with the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, says farmers statewide are gearing up to plant field crops and are now trying to do that and meet the increased demand for local food as well as accommodate CSA customers.
“Thrown into the mix is how to get products safely to people,” says McWilliams Jellie. “Farms are adjusting their practices. Some have an online order process and curbside pickup. Others are working on how to change the traffic flow at farm stands and space their vendors at farmer’s markets.”
A lot of these crop producers, she went on, did lose wholesale accounts, including restaurants and schools, during the pandemic.
“They’re figuring out how to market products and keep the farm going,” she says. “There does seem to be an opportunity and interest there.”
RETAIL DAIRY VS. WHOLESALE
On the other side of this pandemic coin is the local dairy industry.
There are about 90 dairy farms in New Hampshire, down from about 125 five years ago.
Costa, who operates her own milk processing plant at Manning Hill Farm, where the milk is also bottled, has been immune to what’s been happening in the conventional wholesale dairy industry.
“I’ve been selling out of milk almost every day,” she says. “I’ve been doing an extra vat of milk on Mondays for a couple weeks when we had it.”
The New Hampshire dairy industry generates $55 million in state tax revenue, employs 5,300, and generates annual sales of $191 million, which is 30% of the state’s total gross agricultural sales. New Hampshire dairy farms average 120 milking animals per farm and account for 70 percent of farmed land in the state.
Dairy farmers are paid the value of milk in the Northeast. Cows produce a lot of milk in the spring, so it is a time of year when prices typically go down, and that had already started to happen when COVID-19 hit China.
Without that export market, the country has an estimated 7-15% excess of milk.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the dairy industry has seen two of its major markets — restaurants and schools — dry up overnight, adding to the already-existing national milk surplus and the dumping of millions of pounds of milk (including in New Hampshire) that could not be sold.
While 2020 was looking like the year dairy farmers would emerge from depressed milk prices, that surplus is once again driving down prices, and many fear will drive more dairies out of business.
Many more factors have compounded this already huge problem since the pandemic arrived.
Since so many people are staying home and not driving as much, the demand for ethanol is down. Farmers rely on distiller grain, a byproduct of ethanol, to feed their cows.
The price farmers will be paid for their milk is projected to drop to $12 per hundredweight by June, according to Amy Hall of Granite State Dairy Promotion.
Many dairy farmers in the Northeast region need $19 per 100 pounds just to break even.
“It’s been a massive, severe and brutal hit to the New Hampshire dairy industry that’s happened over the past five years,” says Hall. “It will lead to dairy farms shutting down during the pandemic.”
The federal CARES Act included $9.5 billion in emergency response funds to provide direct support to farmers, including dairy farmers. The CARES Act also adds $14 billion to the Commodity Credit Corporation, which can also be used to assist farmers.
Using those funds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture relief program will provide $16 billion in direct support to farmers affected by COVID-19. The federal government will also purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat to be distributed to food banks and other nonprofits. That plan includes spending $100 million per month on dairy products.
There are efforts at the state level to help New Hampshire farmers. The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension created an interactive map on its website to connect residents with local farms. UNH Extension teamed up with the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture to gather the farm listings. The online map includes farm locations and contact information, product categories, online and social media links and more.
And once the economy opens again, Hall wants to see the state move forward with the “N.H.’s Own” dairy premium program.
The dairy premium program, signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu last year, allows the state Department of Agriculture to market milk from New Hampshire dairies with a “New Hampshire’s Own” label, allowing consumers to opt to pay for New Hampshire products with a 50-cent premium that would be returned directly to the farmers. The program was in development but put on the backburner when the COVID crisis hit.
Hall encourages consumers to remember dairy products like Hood, Garelick Farms, Cabot and Market Basket brands are, in fact, from New Hampshire dairy farms and those brands should be supported. She adds that if people can purchase an extra gallon or two and donate it to their local food pantry, which is always in dire need of fresh dairy products.
Granite State Dairy Promotion will donate 1,500 half gallons of milk to the New Hampshire Food Bank in honor of National Dairy Month (June) and is planning more milk drives and milk donation events. People can also make a cash donation to the New Hampshire Food Bank and earmark it for dairy products.
“When you purchase those products, it directly helps every single dairy farm in the state,” she said. “If you want to keep your local farms action is required today.”
She pictures the best-case scenario going forward to be the local legislature stepping up and providing critical funding for dairy farmers.
“When these producers go out of business, they don’t come back,” she says. “The more local producers we lose here, the further our milk needs to be trucked in. Immediate relief needs to happen and quickly.”
Nicole S. Colson writes from Swanzey, New Hampshire.