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Due to declining sales and restrictions, local farmers are anxious amid the COVID-19 crisis

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Justin Timm visits with the llamas at his family's Frog Pond Farm in Wilsonville.

WILSONVILLE — As Oregon Farm Bureau Communications Director Anne Marie Moss explained, trade restrictions, declining crop prices, real estate debt and other factors were already causing difficulties for the agriculture industry in recent years.

And since the COVID-19 pandemic metastasized, local agricultural producers are increasingly anxious about the future, concerned about the viability of their businesses and lament that this crisis couldn't have come at a worse time of year.

"We want to see agriculture succeed and they're a resilient, adaptable community, but these ongoing pressures make it very difficult," Moss said.

At Simnitt Nursery in Canby, Jim Simnitt and his employees grow flowering shrubs like rhododendrons, daphnes and kalmia and sell them across the country.

According to Simnitt, the nursery makes the vast majority of profits during the spring season, when gardeners are buying supplies for planting. For the nursery, the timing of the pandemic has been inopportune to say the least.

"If this happened at any other time of year it would be not OK but a little more manageable," he said. "When you're making 80% of your income in six-to-eight weeks and those six-to-eight weeks fall during a pandemic that gives you moments for pause."

Simnitt said that if demand normalizes in the next couple months the business will stabilize. But if the sales drought lasts through gardening season, the nursery could be in jeopardy.

"I don't know if our operation will be around if this lasts for six months. I don't know how much more streamlined we can get," Simnitt said.

Like many farmers, the challenge for Pete Brentano, the owner of the tree wholesaler Brentano's Tree Farm in St. Paul, is the extended timeframe between investment and sales.

Brentano purchases young trees and then sells them to other wholesalers years down the road.

Recently, Brentano has faced declining sales, which he said is due to landscaping companies working less on their own volition or homeowners choosing to delay projects.

Reducing tree purchases might be one solution. But due to the aforementioned extended timeframe, making quick adjustments to the budget isn't so easy.

"You can't really adjust that to much at this point. It's kind of the faith of a farmer," he said. "We're committed to putting in the crop and the productions we made up a year ago. As we go forward we'll see what the economy is going to do. This could result in us purchasing fewer trees in future years."

On the bright side, Curt Kipp, a spokesman for the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said 12 nurseries he had talked to were hiring, which could be an option for the ballooning unemployed population. Some positions also don't require experience, according to the nurseries association. And before the crisis, Kipp said finding workers was a persistent challenge for local farmers.

Justin Timm and his staff breed llamas at the Frog Pond Farm in Wilsonville. Since coronavirus concerns proliferated, he said sales of recreational animals have nosedived and that revenue at the farm is essentially zero right now.

"We have sales pending because people are uncertain with restrictions with the coronavirus. They're (also) wanting to buy animals but waiting to get back into their jobs and receive a paycheck," he said.

Timm is hopeful that restrictions will be lifted soon and plans to hold weddings and other events at the farm for the first time to make up for lost revenue once that happens.

For now, he said workers are essentially keeping themselves busy with maintenance projects.

"It's a tough one," he said. "If we don't see things reversing for public gatherings by June, we're going to have to start making some difficult decisions across the board."

Mike Iverson, the owner of Aurora Farms near Charbonneau, hasn't had as much difficulty as his contemporaries. This is because he sells much of his vegetables like radishes, spinach, parsley and cilantro to supermarket chains like WinCo foods.

"They're (Winco) still busy as dickens. People are still shopping for food. They told me the other day not to do anything different," Iverson said.

He's actually more worried about federal restrictions making it harder for Mexican migrant workers to obtain a workers visa, a recent measure to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

"That labor force is critical. Domestic workforce is drying up, aging out. They work hard, they earn their money and support their families," he said.

On the other hand, Moss said farmers who have direct relationships with restaurants have been hit hard as restaurants have been forced to close or only provide take out and delivery services.

"They've worked hard to develop those markets and all the sudden that's hugely disrupted," Marie Moss said.

Plus, she said, farms that rely on agritourism have lost that source of revenue as those events are no longer taking place.

Tonie Tollen, the owner of Tollen Farms in Wilsonville, said all tours, birthday parties and other events at the farm are closed indefinitely.

"I think it would have a big impact," Tollen said when asked about if this crisis lasts for months. "It would be devastating."

Moss also pointed out that crop prices have fallen significantly since the crisis began. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, corn prices are down 15%, soybeans 10% and cotton nearly 30%. She also noted that farmers only receive a small share of rising grocery store prices.

"They're not making a lot more money although the grocery store prices might be higher," she said.

One challenge moving forward, Kipp said, is for agricultural producers to navigate the differing regulations across the United States. The New York market, for instance, has been unavailable as the state went under lockdown. Simnitt also noted that he could sell to buyers in one county in Pennsylvania but not another.

"Each state has its own rules and regulations. New York is closed. I'm not shipping to New York. I am shipping to New Jersey and Pennsylvania," he said.

Moss painted a picture of the optimistic farmer who is able to weather difficulties and has high hopes that the next season will produce a plentiful harvest.

But she also noted that mental health issues have been increasingly prevalent in rural communities and the Oregon Farm Bureau has begun a campaign to raise awareness of this issue, which might exacerbate if economic degradation continues.

"That's (mental health issues) a problem nationwide and this (the coronavirus crisis) can't help that problem," Moss said.

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