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Stanly farms deal with pandemic, rough weather in 2020

Many industries are facing financial pressures in the time of COVID-19, but one Stanly industry suffers indirectly at the hands of the pandemic.

The farming industry in Stanly has had a myriad of business struggles in dealing with problems in supply chains, overseas relations and unfavorable weather conditions.

Indirect Effects

In terms of direct effect of COVID-19 on crops and animals, local farmers say there are none, but secondary effects are far more insidious.

Many local farms, like Bowers Farm just off St. Martin’s Road, are reliant on one person to perform the majority of the laborious tasks of cultivating crops.

David Underwood, who works with the farm in western Stanly, said he has to take every precaution to avoid contracting COVID-19 because he does the lion’s share of work on the farm.

He added many of the problems farmers are currently experiencing involve problems with the supply chain of the various equipment and other needs.

Andrew Burleson of Thurman Burleson and Sons Farms said finding supplies like ammonia to clean their sprayers was a struggle. Going beyond normal supply sources, the farm had to resort to Wal-Mart’s pickup service to get the limit they could of two jugs.

Burleson also said early on farmers did not know if enough truck drivers working for distribution warehouses would have an outbreak which could impact their ability to get seeds or other supplies.

Underwood said when employees were laid off in various businesses, supply chains became limited. He likened his struggles to those found in the meat packing industry, with layoffs causing shortages in meat produced so livestock farms bought fewer amounts of corn and soybeans grown by farmers to feed their livestock.

Many retaliatory tariffs from China lowered the prices of many different crops, Underwood said, noting cotton prices have dropped 30 cents a pound the last two years.

“We can’t control our price,” Underwood said. “We can pick a price to sell ourselves or in a pool…but as far as being able to dictate a price, we can’t do it.”

Agriculture is not like the clothing industry, he noted, when a manufacturer can make a shirt and sell to a retailer who can mark up the price.

With input costs about the same or rising along with sales prices going down, Underwood said farmers “are being squeezed from both directions” which affects profit.

Farmers also can only get certain refunds from seed companies by buying other seeds from them.

With the pandemic forcing people to stay at home, people spent less money on things like clothes which meant manufacturers needed less yarn or cotton.

“It’s a trickle-down (effect). In the end, they are not going to buy a lot of cotton until all this straightens out and the supply chain gets full again,” Underwood said.

Bad Weather

Like most farmers, weather is always a factor, and with cold weather stretching into the last weeks of April and first of May, much of the cotton crop was lost. Underwood said he planted more than 1,300 acres of cotton and ended with 200 acres of cotton which came up.

“Cotton does not like (wet weather) when it’s trying to come up,” he said. “The two of those together made it a bad year for cotton.”

Bowers Farm is not the only suffering from low cotton yields in Stanly. Other farms like Thurman Burleson and Sons, which farms 4,400 acres spread in separate parcels across four counties, also had to plant soybeans on acres where cotton failed to grow.

“In most cases, we’re better off to have a crop growing, otherwise it will just grow a bunch of weeds all summer,” Burleson said.

Many farms like Burleson and Sons carry crop insurance, but it only covers seed, fertilizer and supplies.

Challenges many small farms like Burleson face are the logistics of harvesting the amount of corn and soybeans planted when the farm is set up to harvest cotton normally.

“We don’t have the capacity to harvest that many acres,” Burleson said. “We don’t have enough trucks to haul that many bushels. We don’t have enough grain storage to store that many bushels because we normally have cotton in the rotation.”

Burleson said he is glad the farm was able to “pivot and do something else,” but a new set of challenges has popped up.

“We’ll figure it out,” he said, noting the farm was trying to lease a second combine for the fall.

In many cases, small farms have to work together to harvest each other’s crops.

While people on the Burleson farm have tried to not work on Sundays, this spring’s weather also did not give workers little down time, having to replant cotton fields with soybeans.

Natural Social Distancing

Often being a solitary life for the farmer working out on many acres of land, farmers are able to socially distance.

However, in many cases, the farmer is the solitary person working the land. They do not have sick days, with Underwood saying a sick day is still spent on the tractor doing something.

Many of the farms in Stanly are smaller and have less staff. In the case of Burleson and Sons, Andrew said he has his father, who is “more or less retired,” along with family members and a couple of others who do occasional work on the farm.

However, they are the exception for local farms and not the norm for most small local places.

Government Assistance

While the government gave farmers some help with the CARES Act along with regular agricultural subsidies, most farmers, Underwood said, do not really want help from the government.

“Most farmers don’t want to live off government intervention. They want to live off of selling their crops. That’s what we do,” he said. “We know what we can work with and how much we’ve got in it.”

Appreciating the government’s recent help, Underwood said “the government can not continue on giving everybody everything they want and expect everything to stay the same. Inflation’s got to come in sometime.”

As life continues in the pandemic, Burleson noted people’s choices regarding the consumption of other goods have changed.

“People are still going to eat. They might change their eating choices, but they’re going to cut out buying new sheets and towels before they do food,” Burleson said about the cotton industry. “When’s the demand going to come back? Is it going to be in 2021 or 2022?”

The future of Stanly’s farms depends more now on the global prices of goods like corn, which Burleson said the rate used to be set by the local feed mill.

He added one message getting lost is American farmers and their stewardship of the land.

“We’re far from perfect. We’re always learning new technologies. We’re getting better. We are as good stewards as anybody in the world and have to meet higher standards than a lot other places,” Burleson said. “Even from a national security standpoint, we need to grow as much food and fiber here domestically as we can.”

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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