A special letter from Oregon Aglink Executive Director Mallory Phelan, which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of AgLink, the quarterly membership magazine.
We know that the COVID-19 coronavirus is disrupting our economy and communities right now and will have long-term impacts, too. The immediate effects are seen in what a whirlwind March has been. The price of milk has plummeted after a hopeful start to the year, as did the value of lamb, wool and pelts, and time will tell what happens to the grass seed market if golf courses remain open or the housing market slows. With a 1500% jump in unemployment filings the last week of March, food insecurity in our state is increasing.
On the positive end of the spectrum, demand for wheat, price of apples as well as potatoes jumped as sheltering at home consumers’ needs are met through retail sales. Farmers markets are down to core functions and CSA shares from small farms are growing quickly. And of course we all know the demand for timber products like toilet paper, which is still flying off the shelves.
For our organization, the first disruption due to the coronavirus in our calendar was the cancellation of the 92nd Annual Oregon FFA Convention. It is one of our favorite weekends of the year and we missed being part of the energy in Redmond in person, but we were so impressed with the quick adjustment to offer essential parts of convention virtually. Next came the cancellation of Oregon Ag Fest when more than 20,000 people come to the Oregon State Fairgrounds over two days in April. They will still give their Ag Education awards and promote 30 days of Oregon ag facts across social media in April. We’re already looking forward to these events in 2021!
After the closure of schools and the Governor’s executive order, our work to engage Oregonians around agriculture is shifting to work to connect with people in new ways. Our Adopt a Farmer program has had to adapt to this new environment. With field trips and classroom visits suspended through the school year, we are working to make many of them available virtually! We will collaborate with Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom to pair extra curriculum and promote the field trip across digital platforms. Looking toward the 2020-21 school year, we hope to be back to normal operations which will include matches in new counties in Oregon, but are planning contingencies if need-be.
Our small farm safety program met virtually in March and we are working hard to develop more safety content in partnership with Oregon Risk Management Solutions to be available electronically. We’re also taking this time to improve our websites. Our aglink.org site has an Oregon Ag calendar we’re looking to build as a one-stop place to check what events are happening to help avoid crossover of functions in our industry. We’ll be launching our Adopt a Farmer website focusing on connecting middle school students with Oregon producers. Finally, we’ll be updating our consumer-facing website oregonfresh.net with 2017 USDA Census data.
Yes, agriculture is still open for business – but as Dave Dillon, Oregon Aglink board member and executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau noted, there’s a difference in continuing to operate and operating profitably. USDA’s Farm Service Agency is increasing the flexibility of its services to ensure producers have what they need to continue operating. The U.S. State Department is waiving interviews for most H-2A guest workers, but worry about available workforce for harvest as well as farmworker health is already apparent.
There’s some relief coming down the pipeline. The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package has $9.5 billion for livestock, including dairy, specialty crops and local food producers as well as $14 billion to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation which was established in 1993 to stabilize, support, and protect farm income and prices. Locally, SAIF Corporation has established a $10 million fund for policyholders affected by the coronavirus. We encourage our members and greater community to be proactive in communicating with lenders and government agencies to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on your businesses.
While we can’t get away or ignore the headlines that feel like a month’s worth of news every week, we can come together. Farmers, ranchers, fishers, and foresters are particularly adept at problem solving and surviving. In this new economic and social landscape we are navigating, it is more important than ever to share resources and find new ways to collaborate with one another. We’ve always known agriculture is essential to our world and we will navigate these unprecedented times together.