As groceries fly off shelves, farmers worry about next season’s crop

By: - March 25, 2020 12:01 am


In Pittsylvania County, in the heart of Southside tobacco country, farmer Robert Mills’ greenhouse is full of seedlings ready to be transplanted.

Mills, however, is uncertain about whether he should put them into the ground.

“We have to make a commitment as to whether we’re going to plant any of these crops,” he said. But “we have not gotten any confirmation for sure that we’re going to be able to get our migrant workers. That puts us in a real tough situation.”

With the planting season fast approaching, Virginia farmers, still smarting from the bruising effects of the U.S.-China trade war, are facing an extra dose of uncertainty as the state government closes down most daily business in response to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus that as of Tuesday had led to seven deaths and 45 hospitalizations in the commonwealth.

Like the rest of Wall Street, agricultural markets have tanked, driving down prices for soybeans and corn, dairy and hogs — and especially cattle, the latter decline so stark that Mills, whose herd numbers more than 300 head, described it as “a bloodbath.” 

Some of those commodities have showed signs of rebounding: Wheat is slowly climbing back up, as are cattle futures, the price a buyer agrees to pay per pound of a cow at a specified delivery date. In both Harrisonburg and Winchester, auction managers reported welcome increases in sales prices this week compared to last.

“It’s showing some signs that it might be changing. For a few weeks in there it was devastation to the cattle business,” said Jim Chambers, yard manager for Rockingham Livestock Sales in Harrisonburg. Now, “first thing the stores are selling out of is meat. … It’s going off the shelves almost as fast as toilet paper.”

But despite that encouragement, farmers statewide remain nervous. 

“I have a feeling commodity prices are going to stay pretty low given what we’ve seen in the market, so we’re going to have to hope for pretty high yields,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. 

Whether high yields will be possible, though, depends on two key factors. The first, which is troubling larger commercial farmers like Mills, is the availability of labor as countries aggressively limit travel to curb COVID-19’s spread. The second, which affects farmers of all sizes, is the potential for supply chain disruptions that could derail agricultural production and processing.

“If a farmer can’t get access to the raw materials he needs, then the planting doesn’t happen,” said Shreve. “We’re all connected down the supply chain.”

‘We desperately need them’: the H2-A worker problem

A potential labor shortage is the most pressing challenge Virginia farmers face as the critical planting season — always a narrow window even in the best years — begins. 

With a shrinking pool of domestic workers willing to head out to the fields, farmers nationwide have for the past several decades increasingly turned to foreign workers, who under the U.S. government’s H2-A visa program are permitted to enter the country for temporary agricultural jobs. 

In 2017, more than 4,000 farmworkers came to Virginia on the H2-A visa. Today, said Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau, these workers “make up roughly 50 percent of the farm workforce in Virginia.” 

“Without [these workers] we can’t plant and harvest the crops as we do,” said Jennifer Poole, executive secretary of the Halifax-based Virginia Agricultural Growers Association, a group that helps supply labor to Virginia farms through the H2-A program. “We desperately need them.”

On March 16, however, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico, the home country of most H2-A workers, announced it would suspend all visa issuances beginning March 18. Amid the subsequent outcry from the agriculture sector, the consulate agreed to process the visa applications for returning H2-A workers, but not new ones. 

While the move eased farmers’ concerns, it did not dissipate them entirely.

“Most of our growers do get returning workers,” said Poole. “With that being said, the H2-A program has been growing for the last so many years, so we have some new members who obviously didn’t get some H2-A workers last year.”

The Virginia Agricultural Growers Association has already transported one busload of H2-A workers from Mexico this year — in February, before U.S. coronavirus numbers began ticking up dramatically. The next transportation was scheduled to occur in April, said Poole, but the group is unsure about how it can safely carry a group on a long trip while adhering to social distancing practices.

“We’re kind of up in limbo,” she said. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen.”

Some companies with later crops have more breathing room to try to wait out the virus. The Pacific Tomato Growers packing facility in Melfa on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is an important employer of H2-A workers but begins its annual operations in July, when many hope COVID-19 cases will have peaked and restrictions will have been relaxed.

“I hope we will have the support and have the ability to have the H2-A people,” said Carlos Torres, the company’s food safety director.

But even if farmworkers can be brought safely into the country, the problems don’t end there. Whether working on an H2-A visa or on another temporary basis, seasonal farmworkers tend to both labor and live in close quarters.

“How we’re going to house them if we have to socially distance is a concern,” said David Hickman, a fourth-generation potato farmer at the Eastern Shore’s Dublin Farms, which relies on a crew of workers from Florida.

The American Farm Bureau has urged the federal government to classify H2-A workers as emergency workers to skirt the broader visa halt, while several dozen members of Congress, among them Virginia Democrats Rep. Elaine Luria and Sen. Mark Warner, have asked Donald Trump’s administration to allow more flexibility in the processing of H2-A visas, casting the issue as one of national security.

“Food security is national security,” said a March 19 letter signed by 17 senators. “We believe suspending visa services that our farmers rely on will be detrimental to families across our nation trying to put food on the table.”

Mills said that while farmers around the U.S. would put out a crop regardless of the government’s final order, they needed answers about labor and resource shortages to make responsible decisions.

“I have gotten no reassurance,” he said. “You need reassurance from [U.S. Agriculture Secretary] Sonny Perdue and from the president, [someone] that looks me in the eye through social media or the television and says, ‘We are going to get your workforce here.’”

‘Countless supply chains’

In the longer term, agricultural stakeholders are scrambling to make sure that as state and local officials order closures, the complex supply chains that allow farmers to move food from the field to the market are not disrupted.

“When you have an economic sector as large as ours that spreads from the farm level to processing plants to distribution, there’s countless supply chains that make our industry work,” said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation.

Some of those supply chain links, like tractor manufacturing and fertilizer production, are obvious.

Others are less so. Meat, eggs and dairy all must be packaged before being shipped to distribution centers, meaning the facilities that manufacture that packaging must remain open. Electricians, plumbers and technicians must be available to maintain equipment. Certain pesticides growers depend on must continue to be produced. Even the poultry litter used in many Eastern Shore chicken houses relies on byproducts from timber processing. 

“There’s a lot more businesses that we’re dependent on than just a tractor supplier, fertilizer and chemical dealers,” said Hickman.

Transportation is one of the most important components of that supply chain. Much of the food supply is perishable, and even commodity crops like corn cannot last indefinitely before spoiling, meaning that if agricultural trade is to continue, trucking, rail transport and port facilities that export commodity crops abroad must continue operating.

Ironically, Virginia’s beleaguered dairy industry may face an easier path than other sectors thanks to its more localized distribution networks and the high level of automation involved in milk processing.

“It’s not as personnel intensive as maybe other products,” said Eric Paulson, executive secretary of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association. And, he pointed out, “cows have to be milked no matter what, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster [or] weather” —  a factor that makes the milk supply less susceptible to sudden fluctuations.

Perhaps the most decisive thing working in agriculture’s favor, though, is its indispensability.

“The food industry is certainly essential, and people are going to need to continue to eat. … While we might see a few temporary disruptions, we are going to continue to function,” said Shreve. “We have to.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]