Local farmers challenged by pandemic, uncertainty

  • A bulk milk hauler dumps surplus milk from three dairy farms in New Hampshire into the anaerobic digester at Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield to produce methane gas. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A bulk milk hauler dumps milk from three dairy farms in New Hampshire into the anaerobic digester at Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield to produce methane gas. Driver Steve Averill opens up the top of the tank while Keith Bohonowicz dumps the unsold milk into the digester. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 4/24/2020 11:23:26 AM
Modified: 4/24/2020 11:23:15 AM

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the Valley, upending people’s lives along the way, farmers say they’re heading into a season filled with uncertainty and more challenges than usual.

Schools, restaurants, universities and some retailers have closed their doors temporarily, so dairy farmers have lost contracts to sell their milk, and vegetable growers are afraid sales may drop.

“Some dairy farmers, like us, have had to dump milk down the drain,” said Peter Melnik, co-owner of Bar-Way Farm Inc. in Deerfield. “We’re lucky. We have an (anaerobic) digester, so we’re dumping it there. We make electricity for ourselves and sell the rest to the grid.”

It has been reported nationally that packaging plants are refusing some of the milk dairy farmers are producing, which means they have more than they can use. The prices being paid to them have dropped as well, Melnik said, leaving them wondering where this is all headed.

Melnik, who also grows vegetables, said the entire food system has changed because of COVID-19.

“We aren’t providing to schools or restaurants or workplaces like we had been doing,” he said. “Everything we considered ‘normal’ is no more.”

While milk production has been affected already, he’s not sure how the farm’s vegetable business will be impacted.

“It’s not really affecting it right now,” he said. “It’s underway and people are in the fields. We’re just making sure they are all safe and protected.”

Melnik said he’s afraid the vegetable business might be affected once it’s time to sell the produce.

“It’ll all depend on where we’re at with the virus when that time comes,” he said.

Markets have already reacted to COVID-19 by driving a decrease in the price of milk by 30 to 40 percent, Melnick said, which means he’s already seeing a decrease in income.

Bar-Way is a medium-size farm, milking about 400 cows. Melnik said a small farm would milk around 40 cows and a large one would milk around 4,000.

“A 30 to 40 percent decrease in income is huge for us,” he said. “It’s hurting all dairy farmers.”

Typically it’s the weather that farmers worry about each year. Melnik said that won’t change, but now there are the added unknowns of the virus and how it will affect business.

“We also have to worry about whether people will have enough money to buy food,” he said. “Will those who depend on us for fresh produce start eating differently? Will that mean sales will go even lower?”

The good news is that the area leads the nation in supporting its local farms, and Community Involved is Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) has built a “really good infrastructure” for that philosophy.

He’s also worried about farmers markets, assuming some might not open.

“I think we might see farm shares and home delivery increase even more, but how much, we don’t know,” he said. “I hope people do anything they can to support local dairy and vegetable farms. We’ll all have to figure this out together.”

Rainbow Harvest Farm

Owner David Paysnick said his Greenfield farm is growing nursery plants, flowers, herbs and vegetables as it always has, but he’s not sure what the season will look like.

“We’re working the fields,” he said. “We have to get them ready. It’s the rest of the season that’s uncertain.”

Ninety percent of what he grows is sold at farmers markets, including in Greenfield and Springfield. He said Springfield doesn’t plan to open at this point, but Greenfield will, though it will be under limitations to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.

“We don’t even know yet whether people will come out to shop,” he said. “I usually go to markets with my mom and daughter. I won’t have them putting themselves in danger.”

Paysnick said he runs a “small operation” with two people in the field and three at farmers markets. He still has people in the field but will do the markets by himself, at least at the beginning of the season.

“At this point, I’m taking it day by day,” he said. “I’ll just keep readjusting my plans.”

Paysnick said like many other farmers, he created a website so people can order plants and produce.

“We’re doing pickup and delivery,” he said. “It’s helping us plan and gauge the demands. It’s a good way to sell in the current climate. I just hope sales stay up this year.”

As president of the Greenfield Farmers Market, Paysnick said the market will open May 2, if all goes as planned. Farmers will sell their products, but there won’t be any craft vendors or any auxiliary products sold.

He said only a limited number of people will be allowed to shop at one time and that only vendors will be able to handle products.

“There will be a table in front of every vendor to keep with social distancing,” he said. “But even with all of that, we’re encouraging people to shop online. The Greenfield Farmers Market web page will have links to all vendors’ sites. We’re going to get people in and out quickly.”

Paysnick said he’s keeping his employees safe in the fields by providing masks and practicing social distancing.

The pandemic isn’t the first challenge and won’t be the last that local farmers face, he noted.

“We face all types of weather challenges,” Paysnick said. “We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through other things. We’ll know by mid-June or so what this one will really look like.”

Mapleline Farm

Jessica Dizek, a fifth-generation co-owner and spokesperson for the Hadley dairy farm, said Mapleline, like Bar-Way, has been forced to dump milk. She said the biggest challenge for the farm has been that a portion of its market is food service industries, including bakeries, cafes, schools and colleges, most of which have closed because of the virus.

“Our cows are being milked twice a day, as always, are being fed the same diets and are producing milk,” she said. “We met this head-on at the start. We’re servicing the retailers we still have — it’s challenging for them, too.”

Local support is pulling the farm through. She said Mapleline milk is sold in many retail stores and has contracted with a couple of home delivery services.

“Home delivery is gaining steam during this time,” she said.

Dairy farmers need to change their focus and be flexible, Dizek said. Daily tasks on the farm still need to be done, including care of the cows.

“We’ve kept all of our employees, because we have to carry on business as usual, even if it’s different for a while,” she said.

The farm also plants corn and hayfields.

“We’re entering our busy season,” she said. “We’re looking forward to businesses reopening. It’s been up and down so far, but we know things will get back.”

Until then, she said the farm will hold on and do what it can. It is reaching a “new audience” with new retailers and the home delivery service.

“I hope we come out the other side and find ourselves in an even better place than we were before all of this,” Dizek said. “We’ll also be providing farm stands and CSAs. We’ve actually got more customers than usual.”

Dizek said she hopes that through this, people learn how important it is to support local farmers and enjoy fresh, healthy food.

“We’re fortunate to have a supportive community, but I think even more people will begin to do the same,” she said. “I hope everyone opens their eyes to all of the farmers here in the Valley.”

Luther Belden Farm

Darryl Williams, owner of the Hatfield farm, said day-to-day operations haven’t changed. He doesn’t have a lot of employees — himself, his sons and their wives, and three part-timers — so it has been easy to take precautions against COVID-19.

“We pretty much do separate tasks, anyway, so we’re automatically social distancing,” he said. “We typically meet this time of year with the co-op we’re a member of, so we’re doing those (meetings) by phone. Life isn’t really that different right now.”

Williams said his farm milks 162 cows. The biggest impact he’s seeing at this point is the price he’s receiving for his milk.

“That will be tough on the entire industry,” said Williams, a member of Agri-Mark Family Dairy Farms. “We’ve been lucky because so far we haven’t had to dump any milk. Instead, the co-op takes the excess to a plant in West Springfield.”

He said Dairy Farmers of America has asked farmers to slow down production, so that’s what he’ll do. He’ll take cows that aren’t producing a lot and dry them off earlier than usual.

“We’ll lower our expectations,” Williams explained. “It’s hard to slow down, though, because you don’t get that lactation back.”

Williams said some people don’t realize that the milk they buy is a local supply. The milk people buy in this area comes from farmers throughout New England.

“I think if people start to realize that, they’ll appreciate local dairy farmers a little more,” he said.

CISA

CISA Communications Manager Claire Morenon said all farmers are experiencing the same challenges.

“COVID-19 has made this all a rapidly moving target, so what farmers think, feel or experience one day is just a snapshot of the current moment,” she said. “How it is today might be very different a month from now.”

This is the height of the growing season for vegetable farmers. She said many crews are making decisions in an “information vacuum.”

“Some of the problems farmers are facing are all the upfront costs they have each growing season,” Morenon said. “They’re also making decisions now that will affect the growing season, but they don’t know what that’s going to have to look like.”

She said farmers may have to change production and food handling practices.

“They’re going to have to adapt,” she said. “They’re resilient, but it might be costly.”

As for dairy farmers, she noted they have struggled for a number of years.

“They haven’t been paid enough and that hasn’t been good for farms here,” she said.

Morenon said it is an interesting time for local farmers. They have always been resilient, and she expects that will continue.

“This is a really good time to buy local,” she said.

 


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