December 2, 2021

Farmers push through pandemic

Growers navigate a year in ag industry thrown off by coronavirus

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Cattle wait for Russ Bean to feed them Tuesday at Bean’s SunnyBrook Farm in Solon. Farmers in Cortland County are still dealing with the effects of a coronavirus-inspired disruption in food systems, even as they consider what a new U.S. agriculture secretary may do.

Steam flared from the cows’ noses as Russ Bean of Bean’s SunnyBrook Farm pushed feed up to the cows in the Solon barn using the skid steer. They seemed happy to see him.

The Beans, like other farmers, have had to navigate a year in the agriculture industry that’s been thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic. But the farmers also say some of the problems earlier in the year have eased.

Caleb Bean said his family’s farm has been one of the luckier ones, particularly as fears of coronavirus in meat-processing facilities sent people to smaller, local facilities.

“It hasn’t really hurt us,” he said. “We can’t get our animals into the butcher fast enough.”

He said that just days after pandemic began they had sold out of everything. Now he’s already got cows scheduled to go to the butcher through 2021.

“It’s been non-stop,” he said.

But not every farmer has been able to get into a butcher; the closest federally certified butcher to Cortland is in Moravia.

“There’s plenty of meat that’s provided right here in Cortland County that’s phenomenal,” Bean said, and the best thing people can do to support Cortland’s farmers is to buy it.

Bean said he would tell incoming federal Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should ease regulations to allow beef farmers to sell their meat to custom-cut services to be sold by the pound.

Regulations for USDA certification can be daunting and expensive for a small meat processor. However, the PRIME Act is sitting in Congressional committees.

Senate bill S.1620 and House bill HR.2859 would allow farmers who now raise meat for specific customers to divert their livestock to custom slaughterhouses, subject to applicable state laws.

That in turn would create capacity at the USDA-certified butchers to process more product for retail sale.

On the dairy side of the agriculture industry, Paul Fouts of Fouts Farm in Groton said his farm has been hanging in there during the pandemic.

“Things are going better now than they were in April,” he said. “March to May were some scary months.”

During those first few months, the dairy industry was hit hard, even having to dump some milk even as stores saw shortages of milk. Surpluses in the wholesale and commercial dairy distribution systems took time to balance with shortages on the retail side of the business.

“I think the supply chain has sort of worked some things out so we’re not dumping,” he said.

But more can be done, Fouts said.

He said if he had the opportunity to talk to whoever is the next secretary of agriculture, he would ask the secretary to consider allowing the USDA to buy milk again from farmers if need be and give it to food pantries as it did last spring.

“That’s a win-win,” Fouts said. It stabilized milk prices and enabled people to get milk who needed it.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity and people that don’t know where their next meal will come from,” Fouts said. “We were dumping milk and people were going hungry. It was frustrating.”

The other big topic Fouts said he would talk to the new administration about would be looking to stabilize the markets. Fouts said that 15% to 20% of the milk production in the U.S. needs to be exported to other countries.