The costs of this year’s COVID-19 pandemic and deadly wildfire season are still incalculable for some Oregon farmers, but while some see setbacks, others have seen opportunities.
Of Oregon’s nearly 37,000 farms and ranches, more than 97% are family owned and operated, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau. Kookoolan Farms in Yamhill, founded and run by Chrissie and Koorosh Zaerpoor, is one of the luckiest.
While big meat industry players shutdown plants in response to COVID-19 outbreaks last spring, the Zaerpoors saw the “biggest jump in new orders for bulk meats” they had ever seen.
Chrissie Zaerpoor says their order rate tripled over the summer and they are hiring. The couple even received two offers to buy their business, she said.
The farm, which produces grass-fed beef and lamb as well as poultry, seafood, and wine, was as affected by the wildfire smoke as any other farm, but the couple toughed it out, working 12 hours a day with no days off.
“Staying inside is a luxury option that farmers don’t get to choose,” Zaerpoor said. “Honestly, I had to roll my eyes when customers from the city said they were postponing their pickup because they didn’t want to drive in the bad air. Yes, it bothered my asthma for a couple of weeks, and yes we had a few customers postpone picking up their beef or lamb orders, but we were very fortunate that that was the only impact to us.”
As a small non-commodity farm, Kookoolan is ineligible for the kind of federal aid offered by the USDA this year, but Zaerpoor said the farm is doing “just fine without it.”
In May, the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) saw its first round of aid for farmers hurt by falling prices amid the pandemic.
That $16 billion payout was followed by a second round in September totaling around $14 billion for corn, soybeans, and wheat growers as well as livestock, dairy, and tobacco farmers.
In past weeks, the USDA retooled CFAP to include a wider range of eligible crops in response to widespread criticism from farming communities, but everything from hay and milkweed to poultry growers and horse breeders remain ineligible.
CFAP payments are still based on national average prices, not actual losses, leaving many farmers in a deep financial hole. The program operates on a first-come, first-serve basis much like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Christina of Fordyce Farm near Salem said the wildfires stayed clear of their berry crops, but the smoke and ash hurt the growth of many of their crops, including their second crop of strawberries.
“We have been working under strange circumstances this summer, but as the seasons keep turning, so does business on the farm,” Christina said. “Even working under certain COVID restrictions we were happy to see our customers still came out to support us, a local business, and buy fresh and in-season produce.”
Christina said a PPP loan from earlier in the year has helped the farm stay afloat despite a tough time working through the smoke.
Based on metrics from Berkley Earth, the smokey air across western Oregon in September equivalent to smoking more than two dozen cigarettes a day.
In September, federal safety regulators from OSHA issued a statement with the Oregon Health Authority urging employers to keep their workers indoors or at home if air quality was listed as “unhealthy” or worse per EPA ratings.
That month, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown directed state agencies to donate more than 100,000 N95 masks for agricultural workers working outdoors in wildfire smoke.
N95 masks are designed to filter roughly 95% of airborne particles and are considered more effective than cloth masks, according to the Mayo Clinic.
With so many small family farms, Oregon still depends on its more than 100 farmers markets to bring wares to customers.
Kelly Crane, director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association, says business has largely returned for farmers market vendors in a year she describes as a “crisis on top of a crisis.”
Most farmers markets, according to Crane, survive on thin profit margins even in good times and any lost business is concerning for vendors.
“I think almost everybody has suffered some kind of financial loss this year already, because of COVID,” Crane said. “There was a lot of financial pressure on our farmers markets.”
According to Crane, at least one market manager lost their home southern Oregon while many markets along the Interstate 5 corridor shut down for weeks.
Crane said vendors had seen fewer business days tanks to major COVID-19 outbreaks in their municipalities throughout the year and at least a few have left for good.
Social media like one Facebook group, Cow Girl 911, were critical to organizing evacuations in farming communities, Crane said.
Crane says Brown and the Department of Agriculture did “an excellent job” of guaranteeing that farmers markets stayed open during the pandemic, but state financial aid is a question mark at present.
No farm animals were lost to the fires, as far as Crane said, but thousands were moved to evacuation sites like the Salem Fair Grounds.
Despite the fires and the pandemic, Crane said some vendors are nevertheless seeing strong sales in light of what she says is a renewed interest in fresh food.
“Putting a dollar in the pockets of your neighbors at the farmers market is going to mean a lot more than a dollar in the pocket of a large grocery or delivery conglomerate,” Crane said. “Just think about what kind of institutions and businesses in your community you want to be around next year.”
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