For Montezuma County rancher Drew Gordanier, self-isolation has mostly felt like a normal early spring season. He’s sold some yearlings, but at a lower price, and will be moving cattle to the high country soon.
At this time of year, ranchers and farmers in Southwest Colorado are tucked away calving and planting. The industry had been struggling for years before the COVID-19 outbreak, and farmers and ranchers tend to be independent people.
“It’s been hurting us for a while,” Gordanier said, so COVID-19 hasn’t felt much different.
While local farmers and ranchers haven’t yet felt the effects of COVID-19, if the market continues the way it is going, a lot of them will be in more economic trouble. Cattle prices have dropped by 25%, despite the fact that prices have stayed the same or gone up in grocery stores.
Wayne Rogers with the Southwestern Colorado Livestock Association said if the economy is down in the fall, buyers “won’t want to give top dollar for cattle.”
“Things are going to skyrocket or drop dead on their feet” for cattle ranchers, Rogers said. Ranchers like Gordanier and Rogers were starting to get nervous about what lies ahead.
But recently, locals have been calling Gordanier to buy half or a piece of an animal to store in their freezer. To support local family ranchers and farmers in the area, people who can afford it are buying farm-to-consumer.
In a normal year, Gordanier sells 15 to 20 animals. Since the outbreak began, he said, “We’ve been getting calls from customers we haven’t had in a while, asking for farm-raised beef. It’s definitely on the increase.”
Taylor Szilagyi, director of policy communications at the Colorado Farm Bureau, said the organization has noticed Coloradans are interested in buying direct because they can buy more at once.
And ranchers are looking at how to ramp it up in the future to counter the general downturn in the industry. This trend could “open up different markets that the smaller guys don’t normally have access to,” Szilagyi said.
But she said she is urging producers, even if they are small, to take extra precautions. Farmers and ranchers may feel isolated if they are working in fields planting or calving, but “this pandemic is not going to pass over them,” Szilagyi said.
“The last thing we want is for small producers to get sick,” Szilagyi said in a phone interview.
Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner requested last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture take additional steps to provide economic relief to farmers to ensure the food supply chain is stable in Colorado.
“Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit Colorado, farmers across our state have been pushed to the edge by a trade war they didn’t ask for, low commodity prices and challenges with weather and labor,” Bennet said in a statement. “COVID-19 has only added to the uncertainty and instability.”
Farmers and ranchers have been deemed an essential service during the COVID-19 outbreak to provide grocery stores with food. But Gardner told The Durango Herald in a brief phone interview that farmers and ranchers should have greater access to credit and loans, especially if there is a COVID-19 case at one of the meat processing plants.
Workers are taking social-distancing precautions. But if an outbreak were to happen, it would have a major impact on the ranchers in the state, Gardner said.
Keeping agriculture healthy is a matter of national security, Gardner said, because the U.S. relies on its farmers and ranchers for 80% of the food supply.
The Colorado Farm Bureau has created an website of health and economic resources for farmers and ranchers in the state at agisopen.com. The website also has a job board to connect farmers and ranchers who are out of work with farmers and ranchers who help.
“Maybe people will respect the local farmer and rancher a little more,” Rogers said.
“Farmers and ranchers are the people that feed America,” he said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Journal.