Idaho agriculture takes a huge hit from COVID-19

Posted at 5:39 PM, Apr 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-29 22:03:27-04

IDAHO — Idaho has nearly 25,000 farms and ranches that produce more than 185 different commodities, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. The state leads the nation in potato production; dairy is the number one agriculture industry and Idaho and Oregon together produce 25 percent of the countries yellow onions.

Agriculture is massive in Idaho, but since COVID-19, this industry has taken a hit.

"I won't say the supply chain is broken, but the supply chain is disrupted in a monumental way," said Chief Executive Officer of Idaho Dairymen's Association, Rick Naerebout.

The agricultural supply chain flows like a river with a steady flow from the farms to end markets like restaurants, schools and grocery stores. But what happens when that flow has stopped because the end markets are closed or have low demand?

"If that flow gets dammed up somewhere, then there's got to be capacity to store," said Boise State professor of supply chain management, Tom Gattiker. "That river turns into a lake reservoir that's no longer flowing."

That's exactly what's happening to the farmer's dairy and produce. But, the problem is food can only be stored for so long before it begins to rot.

"For most commodities, there's just no capacity to do anything with their stuff; if people don't buy and eat it, we really can't store very much of it," said Gattiker.

With end retailers not buying these products, farmers are forced to throw much of their already harvested goods away.

"That's what I rely on day-to-day. That's what I take care of my animals with. That's what I pay my employees with, and that's what I take care of my family with," said Magic Valley Dairyman, Herkie Alves. "So, when you're just dumping it down the drain, it's tough."

But, people still need to eat, so wouldn't they still be consuming these products? Without restaurants and schools, people aren't consuming as much dairy and produce as they usually would with restaurants fully open.

"That's where we've seen our shift in demand, specifically, in the dairy industry's it's disappeared because people aren't eating out as much and they've changed their eating habits at home," said Naerebout.

Even with low demand, farmers still have to milk their cows and harvest their fields. But, who takes the hit? Sadly, the farmers and their employees.

"Instead of seeing layoffs and people out of work here, you see the farms and dairymen absorb a lot of those losses and taking out loans to continue operations," said Naerebout.

The government has stepped in to help. Through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, 19 billion dollars are going to support food producers in the U.S. But, even with this assistance, Naerebout expects to see some farms go out of business.