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Farmers worry about finding workers, price fluctuations during pandemic

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

The biggest fear Andrew Flinchbaugh has during the COVID-19 pandemic is someone on his team falling ill at a time when he'll need them the most.

"If crops that need to be planted in a certain window don't get planted on time, they lose the opportunity for yield," said Flinchbaugh, the field crop manager of Flinchbaugh's Orchard & Farm Market in Hellam Township.

Price disruptions and access to workers are some of the biggest battles farmers are facing right now as they prepare fields for planting, cut grass and trim trees that became overgrown over the winter. 

Long lines of apple trees start to bud leaves at Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards in Monoghan Township. 
Tuesday, April 7, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

While the coronavirus has disrupted certain aspects of farming life, Flinchbaugh said it could be worse — for example, if the outbreak started over the summer or fall, when farms are most busy with harvest season.

In the spring, Flinchbaugh's will focus on growing corn, soybeans and wheat, while Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards will start with strawberries and raspberries, which will come into season at the end of May and in June. 

Karen Paulus, the co-owner of Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards in Monaghan Township, also said she's most concerned right now for how the virus could affect the future.

Her farm heavily relies on customers who pick apples, strawberries and other fruits during the summer and fall months along with events and parties as main sources of income, but Paulus said the business has to look beyond a single off year.

"If those numbers decline significantly, it will be a tough year financially, but in farming you can never look at one year. It's always the law of averages," Paulus said. "Next year might be a fabulous year — I have faith that we will be just fine."

Karen Paulus, the co-owner of Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards, is concerned for how the virus could affect the future of their berry and fruit farm in Dillsburg. The farm heavily relies on customers who pick apples, strawberries and other fruits during the summer and fall months.
Tuesday, April 7, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Farming represents a large portion of York County's economy. In 2017, York County's agricultural products sold for about $260.9 million, sixth among the state's counties. And farmers hold 252,713 acres of farmland in York County with 2,067 farms, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Across the country, farmers saw immediate price disruptions when COVID-19 cases first popped up at the beginning of March. Since schools and restaurants have closed in Pennsylvania, farmers have seen less demand, said Liam Migdail, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

"You have these disruptions all over the place, but farmers are still working," Migdail said.

Long lines of apple trees start to bud leaves at Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards in Monoghan Township. 
Tuesday, April 7, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

While Migdail said it's too early to tell how the pandemic will affect crop insurance, he said several "safety net programs" have been implemented to ease the financial strain of the pandemic, adding that he expects there will be a greater need for those programs in the coming months.

Most recently, the federal stimulus law, or CARES Act, allowed the Commodity Credit Corp. — which funds several programs for farmers — to borrow an additional $14 billion and set aside $9.5 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create financial assistance programs for agriculture.

 Migdail said farmers are beginning to grapple with a lack of available employees  to tend to fields and plant seeds.

Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards hires two groups of 10 guest workers who typically arrive in late August for apple season, one of the orchard's busiest times of year.

"We're hopeful that our crew will be able to arrive safely from Mexico," Paulus said. "We depend on them heavily. They're our family."

About 145 guest workers came to York County last year through the H-2A Program, which provides temporary visas to individuals from other countries filling provisional farming jobs and staying for three to six months, Migdail said. 

Abigail Pontius, 18, left, and sister Hope, 17, prune raspberry bushes at Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The farm in Dillsburg relies on customers who pick apples, strawberries and other fruits during the summer and fall months.
John A. Pavoncello photo

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State temporarily suspended routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates as of March 20, according to the Department of State's website

Additionally, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and all U.S. consulates in Mexico suspended routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services starting March 18, according to its website.

Paulus said in the event her guest workers can't arrive, she would need to hire  people who would likely have little farming experience.

"That adds in some challenges, but we are ready to face them if need be," she said.

Despite these barriers, farmers have continued to do their routine work daily.

While Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards temporarily closed its kitchen because of concerns over the orchard's "high-risk" employees over the age of 60 — which halted jam and jelly production — Paulus' husband, Dan, continues to work on preparing the fields.

Kevin Budzinski, 15, left, and brother Ian, 18, prune blackberry bushes at Paulus Mt. Airy Orchards, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The farm in Dillsburg relies on customers who pick apples, strawberries and other fruits during the summer and fall months.
John A. Pavoncello photo

At Flinchbaugh's, the staff is doing similar work to prepare for the upcoming season. 

"We're very fortunate that the governor has allowed agriculture and agriculture supply companies to continue to operate," Flinchbaugh said. 

Though farmers are continuing to see the effects of the coronavirus on their businesses, Migdail said the best thing local residents can do to continue supporting their farms is to continue buying groceries and produce as normal.

Paulus said interested customers who want to support the farm can either purchase a gift card at the orchard's website or sign up for its community supported agriculture program — a weekly box of fresh produce that is picked up or delivered each week for 18 weeks, starting May 24. 

"Supporting local farms helps ensure they can continue to produce food for their communities and serve as a major driver of economic activity in their communities," Migdail said. "We would really encourage people to buy the products they've been buying. That's really going to help the farmers out."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.