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COVID-19 making ag producers' jobs more complicated


Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

A line of cows head up a hill to graze outside Havre. The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to an already-high stress level in agriculture, with no one sure what the long-term impact will be for ag producers.

Experts say COVID-19 is creating complications for an already troubled cattle market and is causing stress for Montana's agriculture producers.

Northern Agricultural Research Center Superintendent Darrin Boss said it's difficult to predict how COVID-19 is going to affect agriculture in Montana, but the situation has not been good for the cattle market.

"It's been all over the board, the cattle market's been pretty much in a declining state, in a state of flux for several months now, and this hasn't helped," Boss said.

This sentiment was echoed by Dana Darlington, a rancher living outside of Big Sandy and president of the North Central Montana Stockgrowers Association.

"As of right now, it doesn't seem like it's affecting us a whole lot, but long-term, who knows," Darlington said, "It doesn't look real promising."

He said particularly in this time of year ranchers don't need to go into town much and social distancing doesn't have much of an effect on his day to day operations.

"We're calving right now. We're kind of in our own little world out here," he said.

Boss said he hasn't seen the pandemic affect cattle prices specifically. But social distancing is making selling more difficult.

"Some of the most immediate effects I've been seeing ... is when they're restricting the number of people that can attend events throughout the state of Montana," he said, "Right now is bull season, and we all gotta buy bulls, we all have to have them turned out by June 1, or our normal breeding dates."

Boss said despite this complication, producers have switched their methods to digital spaces with relative success.

"Ag people are really good at work-arounds," he said.

But Darlington said he has some concerns about how this shift to digital will affect many of his fellow ranchers.

"I'm afraid it's going to affect those producers' prices. It's gonna be harder for a lot of people that aren't comfortable with computers to bid online, or don't want to risk it," he said, "It will add a bit of stress to that."

Boss said this transfer to digital methods has brought another complication in the lives of many ranchers into focus.

"It sure makes me think about those areas that are not fortunate enough to have fiber (optics)," he said, "The rural areas of Montana are really struggling as we go to digital teaching for our students that are home from high school or college right now."

Boss said producers having their children at home with school closures can be a big help to their daily operations, but these complications can add to the stress of those working in an already stressful field of work.

Darlington, as well as having two children in the service, has seen his relationship with his parents disrupted by COVID-19.

"Our biggest concern is, like everyone, we've got family scattered everywhere. ... My mom's in a rest home and is, of course, on lockdown, I can't go see her, and my dad's 89 years old and lives by himself, I keep up with him on the phone," he said.

Boss said agriculture in general can be a harrowing industry to work in because so much of it is dependent on nature, which can often be fickle and these complications can add to that stress.

He said this year, many ag producers we're already facing a year of low reservoirs, and COVID-19 is not helping matters.

Darlington said this anxiety of the unknown is not unusual in the industry, but the pandemic has exacerbated it.

Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss said he worries about the effect COVID-19 could have on the ag industry down the road and hopes that Congress pays attention to it's needs.

"If we forget to accommodate our agricultural producers we're doing a disservice to the entire country, and really the world," said Tuss.

Despite the stresses, Boss and Darlington said that times of crisis like this make them think about how vital the work of ag producers is.

"It makes me think that I'm really proud to be an agricultural producer, not just in Montana, but in the United States," Boss said, "We produce the most wholesome and healthy food source in the world. And I think these kinds of stresses on the people and the environment in the current situation, makes us realize that we do a good job not just feeding the United States but the world."

"The world needs to eat," Darlington said, "People need protein, and we here, in the U.S., and especially here in Montana, we have the highest quality meat, and some of the highest quality grain in the world and we just need to find a way to get it to people safely, and make some money."

He said he's hoping the pandemic will bring into focus the importance of his industry, and that the situation will stabilize for everyone's sake.

"It's gonna be an interesting time these next few weeks," he said, "Hopefully we'll get through this and things will get back to somewhat normal."

Boss said COVID-19 has also had effects on the research center itself, and how they go about studying the animals they're working with.

"How we're doing it is maybe changing," he said, "I know that even before the coronavirus hit, we installed cameras to monitor calving and study cows a lot easier with a lot less labor."

He said this camera system is helping them study the animals while maintaining social distance.

Boss said the center is complying with Montana University System directives on animal studies and has developed emergency action plans that will allow them to continue their work if enough of the staff gets sick and must stay home.

He asks that the public not enter the building for the sake of social distancing and instead get in touch via phone or email if they have questions or concerns.


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