Local farmers struggle to survive

Local farmers struggle to survive

Bill Lowery, 65, is a fourth generation farmer. He is retired, but he still manages his cattle farm, timber farm, and serves as President of the Russell County Farmers’ Federation. He weighed in on how the pandemic and the shutdown has affected local farming. 

“Farmers are going about their business, because they can’t stop,” Lowery said. “They can’t stay in. Farming is such a cyclical business that if you don’t do certain things at certain times of the year, you don’t get anything. It’s important for farmers this time of year to plant and get ready for the production year.”

Lowery said that it’s been tough so far not just because of COVID-19, but also because of commodity prices, input costs, and financial losses. Farmers only make up one percent of the population and they are in financial crisis. 

“Farmers carry a very big load for food in this country and the world,” Lowery said. “As far as COVID-19 goes, farmers are very resilient people. They have a knack for being survivors. Those that don’t have that knack aren’t farming anymore.”

According to Lowery, it’s getting harder and harder for farmers to do their jobs, but the shutdown plays only a small part in farming struggles. He said the shutdown hasn’t stopped farmers from planting or other work that needs to be done, but that there are many other factors, such as the enormous amount of rain this spring. 

“People are behind getting crops in the ground,” he said. “We’ve had six inches of rain in the last four weeks…it’s hard for farmers to get back in and work. It’s been a challenge to say the least. It’s hard for them to be enthusiastic. I know everything is going to be alright. We can survive.”

According to Lowery, labor shortages aren’t typically a problem that affects cattle and row-crop farmers (peanuts, soybean, etc). The concern is for those produce farmers in south Alabama and other areas of the country who require migrant workers for harvest. Also, chicken farms and processing plants are affected by labor shortages. Currently, migrant workers are not allowed into the country. 

“It (produce farming) is becoming more and more mechanized, but a lot of it is still done by hand labor,” Lowery said.

Lowery said he thinks that there will be some shortages and price hikes, but that its more logistics than anything. A lot of what is produced from farms are perishable foods. Also, problems like extreme weather, high cost of production and equipment, low commodity pricing, and now a pandemic, cause financial challenges that are difficult to overcome—farming is not for the faint of heart. The number of farmers and ranchers in our country has dropped from 70 percent of the population in 1840 to just 1.3 percent of the population today. Lowery said that farmers don’t farm for the money but because they love what they do. 

“You can’t make any money at it even when things are perfect,” he said. “Farmers this year are looking at a loss before they even get started. It’s not just the Corona. If anything, it has brought some attention to essential people. Farmers are the most essential of anybody. Everybody has to eat and people in this country have taken food for granted. They expect it to be there. It’s detrimental to this country. You can see how this (pandemic) has shaken the world to its core. You let the food supply in the world go away, and you’ll see how bad things will get. When people are hungry, they do crazy things.”

Despite the challenges, Lowery has hope. He said if anything, this pandemic has been a wake-up call. 

“America’s strongest only when we come together,” Lowery said. “We’re the best nation that’s ever come on this Earth. That’s why everybody wants to come here. You don’t see people lining up to leave America. I don’t care how bad people say it is…there’s no place like this country. I’ve been around the world—I’ve been to a lot of countries—and the best thing about being gone is getting back to Alabama.”

Matt Green, 44, is a Russell County organic dairy farmer. He grew up in it and returned to it in 2016 after earning a degree in crop science.  

“It’s been stressful for all dairy farmers, because we don’t know if the milk will be picked up or not,” Green said. “The cooperative I’m a part of has worked really hard and has been able to utilize everybody’s milk that’s part of the cooperative. They had a little bit of time when they have had to dump some milk, but most of the milk in the United States goes through a cooperative, and that’s good. It helps.”

As for what he will do in the future, Lowery said farmers try to keep going. 

“That’s what we do,” he said. “It’s so basic to everything. I think people understand that now more than ever. We need to eat.”

A husband and father for four, Green said one positive has been being able to have more family time. His wife, Dawn, normally travels for her job as a field application specialist (microbiologist) and has had to stay home for the shutdown. 

“That’s been good,” he said. “That’s probably been the biggest thing. More family time. We’re together, but now even more so.”

“We’ve been so blessed in this country, and in Alabama, to have the healthcare workers that we have, and the food that we have,” he added. “It’s going to be hard to get through what else is going to come with this, but we’re in a land that is flowing with milk and honey as God gave to the Israelites when they left Egypt. He provided for them no matter what came. And to me, God is providing for us no matter what with this.”

Charlie Speake has had a cattle farm and row crop operation in southeast Russell County since 1980, after going to work for his father-in-law. In addition to breeding cattle, he grows peanuts and cotton. As for how the pandemic and the resulting closures have affected his day-to-day operations, he said they really haven’t. They have been able to do everything they normally do. 

“Our employees have continued to come to work every day,” Speake said, “and we just go about our business. It’s planting time, so when it first started we were in preparation, getting the land read to plant. We’ve social distanced, used a lot of face masks, hand wipes, and gloves when the situation called for it. Most of our work is people driving tractors, so we’re pretty isolated.”

Speake said he hasn’t had any trouble getting any supplies he’s needed during the shutdown, and that the problem he has had is that cotton, his biggest crop, has had hampered pricing for the last two- and-a-half years due to the trade war with China. 

“We have really suffered on our cotton prices as much as 25 percent,” Speake said. “It was finally headed back in the right direction then this pandemic hit. People are just not buying things…we just can’t seem to get ahead on cotton right now.”

The pandemic has also affected his ability to trade and sell cattle. 

“Most of the stockyards in the state had closed,” Speake said. “They couldn’t get buyers to buy the cattle. They were backing up at the meat processing plants, and they couldn’t take them. They needed them. There was plenty of beef out there, because nothing changed about the supply. It was just the ability to get it processed and moved to the grocery store was backing up.”

Speake managed to sell some of his cattle during this time, which he had to do because he has a limited amount of pasture, but said the prices on the farm are going down because he hasn’t been able to move the cattle. As for the financial outlook, he said that remains to be seen after the fall harvest. 

“We are lucky we are in an industry that still has to work,” Speake said. “And we’re lucky nobody has gotten sick. I don’t know anybody who’s had it. I’m sure people do, I just don’t know them. It (COVID-19) hasn’t been a huge problem in our area of the state compared to other places. I guess that’s a positive.”