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Federal government offers help for farmers hit hard by COVID-19

Posted at 10:37 PM, May 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-05 00:41:04-04

NEPHI, Utah-- Utah's farmers and ranchers struggling during COVID-19 now have a new source of help. The Small Business Administration announced Monday that agricultural businesses can apply for an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan, to help stay in business.

Some cattle ranchers and dairy farmers say it could make the difference between shutting down a family business, or making it through the pandemic.

On Monday evening, a large tractor hauling a trailer contraption that spills feed out the side, slowly drove down a row in between cattle pens.

Dairy cows stuck their heads out of the pen, quickly munching on the mixture of hay and other nutrients.

It's part of the daily routine at Cedar Ridge Farms, and that routine has remained mostly unchanged by COVID-19.

"These girls don't really knowthat there's a pandemic going on, so they're working hard every day, like they normally do," said farm manager Sheila Sherwood.

From feeding, to milking-- operations have carried on.

It's what happens after the milk leaves the farm, that is dramatically different."The overall price has dropped," Sherwood said, of the cost of milk.

Pair the dropped prices, with losing 50% of the milk demand when the restaurant industry all but came to a halt-- and it has created a huge struggle for dairy farmers.

Sherwood explained that the industry didn't necessarily take 50% of the milk in liquid form, but instead used it for butter, cream, etc.

Cedar Ridge Farms is still shipping their milk out every day. They don't really have a choice. It's not really an option to cut back on feeding cows, or milking them."It has found a home every day so far," she said, of the milk.

Sometimes, that home is the food bank, whether in Utah or Idaho. While donating the milk at least means it doesn't go to waste, for Sherwood-- it means no paycheck."You can only operate at a loss for so long," she said.

Wade Garrett, VP of Public Policy for the Utah Farm Bureau said they've never seen the market plummet like this.

As a farmer and rancher himself, he's used to the gamble that weather, fluctuating trade deals and change in consumer habits can bring.

He's never seen what a global pandemic can do.

"Turn the market almost overnight upside down on its head," he said.

Garrett, who is partners with his siblings and dad at Garrett Farms, raises cattle and grows hay and alfalfa.

He explained that a cut off in exports means there's nowhere to send his crops. And if dairy farmers or other customers struggle, they aren't buying it either.

Some meat packing plants have shut down because of COVID-19 problems, and the restaurant industry has tanked.

Restaurants normally make up a huge cut of the meat demand in the Ag industry, and Garrett said restaurants usually take the more expensive cuts like T-bone and Filet Mignon.

While grocery store demand has spiked, he said that's mainly for cheaper meats like hamburger. And hamburger meat doesn't fill the void left behind by restaurants.

Garrett indicated that it means there's no one willing to buy his cattle, because all these factors have created an uncertain future.

COVID-19 has clearly sent a wave through the Ag industry, with the ripples hitting just about everyone.

That's why he and Sherwood were glad to hear about the federal government help.

"They freed up some SBA that usually wasn't open for agriculture," Garrett said.

He said he needs to look at all the details with the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and see if he qualifies to apply. But, he said, any help is welcome.

"Family farm like ours-- where I'm 3rd generation, and my children are 4th generation-- It can a make difference for us continuing to remain in business and be an ongoing family farm, I hope, for many generations... or closing our doors," Sherwood said.

Cedar Ridge Farms was lucky enough to get in on an SBA loan already.

So, even though they aren't always getting paid for their milk, they can keep the daily routine unchanged during COVID-19."Working through it the best that we can like everybody else," she said.

She's still able to pay employees and feed her cows, while she waits for things to return to normal.