Bridge Valley Farm

Beef cattle stand in the field at Bridge Valley Farm in Rapho Township Thursday, March 26, 2020.

When it comes to the ongoing pandemic, Darwin Nissley said he’s kept his attention focused firmly on the news, watching as daily updates show increasing COVID-19 infections in Lancaster County and across the state.

“I'm very concerned,” Nissley said, explaining it’s not fear for his health that keeps him tuned in.

Instead, all of that concern is pointed at his 450-acre beef cattle operation in the Mount Joy area, where early this spring, profits were threatened by virus-related disruptions to the farm-to-consumer supply chain.

Now, as cases rise rapidly, Nissley and farmers like him said they wonder if another round of disruptions is on the way. And industry leaders hope lessons learned this spring will be enough to shield them from renewed hardship.

Mostly, there is uncertainty, according to Nissley of Nissley Brothers cattle farm, which supports an 800-head feedlot.

“There is nothing we can do, just keep informed and adjust accordingly,” Nissley said. “Does it add extra stress? Oh yeah. I think everybody in the agriculture community is concerned about this.”

Memories of spring

Nissley remembers the hardships his farm faced earlier this year, when infections and employee absenteeism impacted the plant where his animals are processed. It left him with no option to promptly offload his cattle, causing them to become “over-finished,” which meant they were worth less, he said.

On top of that, in-person school and restaurant closures — which have since been lifted — were mandated by state government officials in March with hopes of curbing the virus’s initial spread.

Schools and restaurants are some of the industry’s biggest customers, especially for dairy farms, and that business was eliminated almost overnight.

It was a change that left some farmers, like Justin Risser of Conoy Township, with excess milk, which occasionally had to be dumped and wasted.

In the months since, the market has somewhat returned, and working with a multifarm cooperative to set production limits has helped to minimize losses, said Risser, who runs the 850-cow Meadow Vista Dairy.

But it’s unclear if a second wave of increasing COVID-19 infections could lead to another round of shutdowns.

“Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Risser said.

Hope amid uncertainty

That uncertainty exists across the state, according to Liam Migdail, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“It’s hard to say what will happen, but at this point, we are hopeful we won’t see disruptions akin to what we saw in the spring,” he said.

Migdail cited the suddenness with which the first wave of the pandemic hit, and added that it was an entirely new problem that those in the agriculture industry had to quickly adapt to.

At that point, practices like social distancing, which have now become commonplace, were entirely foreign concepts at places like meat processing plants, he said. A lot has changed since.

“At this point, the food supply chain has been adapting and adjusting to COVID-19 for eight months,” Migdail said. “While there will certainly be challenges ahead, we have a playbook and infrastructure in place now for addressing them, which puts the food supply chain in a much stronger position than it was early in the pandemic.”

Consumer shortages

Those supply chain breakdowns also were responsible for some product shortages and bare grocery store shelves that consumers experienced in the early days of COVID-19, experts said.

And still, there is potential for intermittent breakdowns as new cases rise and government officials act to stop the spread, Migdail said.

In fact, Migdail shared that perspective on the same day that state Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine announced that in-state COVID-19 restrictions would be tightened, with new mask wearing guidelines and testing requirements for interstate travel.

Still, many schools and restaurants remain open.

But Levine didn't rule out the possibility of expanding those restrictions even further.

“If we all do our part and stand united, then we might not need any further mitigation efforts,” Levine said. “If people do not follow these measures and our numbers increase … then I can’t predict the future and what will be necessary.”

Opposing new restrictions

To Lancaster County Farm Bureau President Don Ranck, there is no number of new infections that would warrant further restrictions, especially another shutdown of non-essential businesses and schools.

Ranck said the economic losses from the first shutdown still persist throughout the local farming community, with the farm-goods-buying restaurant and hotel industries still down significantly.

“I just hope that we come to our senses with this disease and look at the real numbers,” he said.

On Wednesday, health department officials placed the state’s number of confirmed COVID-19 infections at 281,852 and total deaths from the virus at 9,465.

Ranck said he sympathizes with those who have lost loved ones, but that the numbers illustrate that the vast majority of people infected with the virus are able to recover.

“It’s time to look at reality and move on,” he said. “This kind of thing is completely irrational.”

Ranck said he’d like to see an end to the worried consumers, who he fears will again resort to “panic buying,” creating shortages on grocery store shelves. He’d instead like to see them buying turkeys and planning to celebrate the holidays with their families. Extended-family gathering have been discouraged by health officials.

“Now, they'll hide in fear instead,” Ranck said.

Rising rural infections

The reality is that COVID-19 infections are increasing, including in rural areas, according to Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.

This week, she provided a statement that asked Pennsylvanians to continue to follow the guidelines handed down by health officials.

“The recent spikes in COVID-19 positives, especially in rural areas, demonstrate that no community is immune to the spread of the virus,” that statement reads. “Farmers are exceptional in what they do every day, but they are no exception to the rules put in place to protect them from contracting the virus.”

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