When the New York Farm Bureau surveyed farmers statewide about how COVID-19 affected them, most farmers who responded had a plan to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Going through the survey questions Tuesday during a Zoom call with farmers, state Farm Bureau representatives and the media Tuesday was state Farm Bureau Director of Public Policy Jeff Williams. Five hundred thirty-one farmers responded to the survey, done in June.

“Do you have a plan in place to train and assist employees to mitigate the spread of COVID-19?” read one of the questions.

Answering yes were 219 (84 percent) farmers, while 43 (16 percent) said they don’t.

“This is frankly, one of the good-news stories of the survey,” Williams said. “Early on, there was a huge rush on hand sanitizer. That got better over the weeks. I’m really proud of how our employers have worked with their employees to make sure they’re trained, they’re able to protect themselves ...”

Of those who said they don’t have a plan, Williams said, “I suspect a lot of that has to do with farms that only have family workers and no one from outside of the family working on the farm.”

There was a question about farm labor and whether there are any issues with getting employees to come north from Mexico.

Jim Bittner of Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton, Niagara County, said Bittner-Singer Orchards had some H2A (temporary agricultural workers program) workers come in just before COVID-19 got complicated in March.

“They came from Mexico. When they got here, they were isolated for 14 days, worked separately. They did work, but they worked in a separate group, didn’t mingle with the other workers for two weeks. After that, they were brought in with the rest of the workers,” he said. “We have another job order in for 20 workers from Mexico for September and October. The plan is the same. When they come, they’re going to be isolated. We have separate housing for them so we can keep them separate and do all the precautions we possibly can.

“Also, if somebody feels sick, feels they have a fever, the most important thing for them to think to themselves, they need to stay home. Do not push it,” he said. “If you’re not in 100 percent health, don’t come to work today. It’s a different time. My biggest fear is, we get into September and we have a COVID outbreak. We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The first question in the survey was, “To date, how has your business been economically impacted?”

To this question, 188 respondents (37 percent) said they were affected negatively. There were 141 respondents (28 percent), reported being affected very negatively. Thirty-eight of those who responded (8 percent), said their business was either positively or very positively affected.

Another question was, “Which best describes your existing farm/business situation due to disruption from the COVID-19 crisis?

The biggest group, 210 respondents (43 percent), said “lost customer sales” best described the effect on their business. One hundred eighty-four (37 percent) cited “cash flow issues,” 175 (35 percent) said it was “market disruption” and 92 (19 percent) said “lost restaurants/consumers,” while 45 (9 percent) said “transportation/shipping challenges” and 34 (7 percent) said “lack of supplies or needed business resources.”

“That’s pretty notable, because in New York state, 50 percent of what we produce goes to institutions, whether it be schools, restaurants, hospitals ...” Williams said, referring to those who answered “lost restaurants/consumers.”

“How big of a concern is your mental health or that of a family, friend or neighbor?” farmers were asked in the survey.

One hundred eighty-two (38 percent) said they weren’t concerned, while 172 (36 percent) were somewhat concerned, 80 (17 percent) were neutral and 48 (10 percent) were very concerned.

“Working on a farm in a normal year, that’s extremely stressful. You throw in a pandemic on top of that and drought the northern part of the state and other parts of the state, hail in the Hudson Valley, creating apple damage, loss of markets, through the pandemic,” Williams said. “Basically, the isolation, also, of being a farmer, being on the farm every day, it can take a real toll. That’s why we’ve been so strong in our advocacy for mental health funding for farmers, through (NY) FarmNet and NYCAMH (New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health) and others. Farmers need support in many ways and mental health is certainly one of the (ways).”

During the question-and-answer session, someone asked whether there are any plans in place if schools do not open and the demand for milk and the demand for milk doesn’t return.

Kim Skellie, a partner at El-Vi Farms in Newark, Wayne County, said that’s a tough question to answer right now.

“We’ll probably know a lot more in a couple of weeks,” he said. “The plan to cur back production, to a certain extent, can be gradually undone in a few months, depending on how the production was cut back. I guess, at this point, we’re hopeful that there will be school lunches and there will be a fair amount of demand coming from those areas, but it’s probably going to take awhile to fully correct itself.”

Another questioner asked how milk pricing has been this year and has the weather and the pandemic presented a hindrance to pricing?

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said dairy prices crashed at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It went from the $18 range to the $12 range. Cheese prices are back up now, very strong, but because of the formulas and the way calculations are, what we’re receiving is not up much yet. Hopefully it will strengthen a little bit, but depending on reopening in other states, all of our markets are, I would say, in dire jeopardy.”

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