Pandemic gives local farmers pause

Food growers struggled with meat processing and produce packaging, and prices still aren’t good.
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A hitch in processing beef cattle still is being felt by farmers, as well as by the meat-buying public. Courtesy iStock

Farmers in Michigan have been having a hard time processing their livestock and crops, but not because processing plants are closed.

Denny Heffron, owner of Heffron Farms in Belding, said he works with five processing plants and they aren’t processing fast enough. Heffron’s family farm spans a few thousand acres and they raise cattle and bulls, as well as grow corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa.

“We cannot get our cattle processed as fast as we need to,” he said. “We are behind right now about a hundred head of cattle and we feel pretty good about that because there are some places that are worse than that.”

The processing slowdown can be attributed to the coronavirus and, as a result, Heffron said the American people are experiencing something they never have before: limits on the amount of produce that can be purchased and much larger cuts of meat. The meat sizes can be attributed to certain large-scale customers, such as schools and restaurants, either closing or serving limited populations, which means packages originally earmarked for those facilities now are sold retail to the general public.

Heffron also operates two farm markets in Grand Rapids and one in Wyoming, in addition to one on the farm in Belding, that sell fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, grains, chicken, beef, pork and turkey.

“During Easter, I couldn’t buy a dozen eggs in a carton,” he said. “No one had any, but if I wanted to buy them in the bulk, 15 dozen boxes in a box, I could buy them by the semi-loads. We had to buy the bulk and engage my grandchildren to take them out of the box and put them in 12-count boxes so I could sell them. So, there isn’t a shortage of eggs, it was just in the wrong size box.”

Heffron said because the farm couldn’t get cattle processed fast enough, they had to hire more workers. During the state’s stay-at-home order, Heffron said he and his family had to make home deliveries and offer curbside pickup.

Dan Keenan, a fifth-generation farmer and the president of the Michigan Soybean Association, said he has felt the impact of the coronavirus through the prices when he sells the soybeans, corn, sugar and black beets that he grows on his 1,500-acre farm.

Keenan said at the apex of the pandemic he had a hard time getting his parts supplier, tractor dealer and fertilizer dealer, among others, to make visits to his farm.

In addition to having a limited number of suppliers and dealers visiting his farm, Keenan said the greatest coronavirus impact on soybeans — which were already reeling from the trade war and harsh weather conditions — was dramatically lower pricing.

Keenan said before the trade war with China, soybean prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a financial and commodity derivative exchange marketplace, averaged around $10 to $10.50 per bushel.

“As for the entire tariff war with China, soybean prices have taken a hit,” he said. “So, leading up to the pandemic, we were at depressed prices anyway. We were hovering over that $8.50 to $9.25 per bushel depending on the time of the year and the market structure. Leading up to the pandemic we were already experiencing depressed prices. We had a little rally last year because of the bad harvest around the country. The prices weren’t great, but it could have been worse.”

For the past couple of years, Keenan said the cost of producing a bushel of soybeans ranged from $7.50 to $9 depending on the operation and certain conditions. Generally speaking, he said the price per bushel of soybeans the past couple years has been very close to if not below the cost of production.

Back in March, according to Keenan, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange priced soybeans at around $8 per bushel but locally the price was between $7 and $7.75 per bushel. As a result, the soybean farmers made little in gross revenue or they were at a deficit when production costs were deducted.

Nevertheless, Keenan said despite how 2020 began, by the end of the year he expects to have an average season — if the weather cooperates — selling about 25,000-30,000 bushels of soybeans.

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