WEST WEBER — Maybe the coronavirus pandemic will cause people to quit taking food security for granted. At least Ron Gibson hopes so, because he says the future depends on it.
Gibson, a sixth-generation farmer in West Weber, speaks for agriculture interests in the state as president of the Utah Farm Bureau, which has 34,000 member families.
"The biggest challenge we have right now is the markets have all just kind of fallen apart on us," Gibson said.
He said 42% of dairy products produced in the United States goes to food service, restaurants, hotels, cruise ships — industries all brought to a near standstill.
Another 25% is exported.
"So 67% percent of dairy products are designed to go to a place that is not happening right now," Gibson said.
But demand crashed and prices for producers have plummeted.
In November, milk producers were getting $20 per hundredweight. As of the first week of April it was down to $11.60, Gibson.
And he's personally experiencing up close the devastating impacts of the pandemic's economic disruptions.
"It's ugly," Gibson said. "We're just trying to figure out how to survive."
His dairy, with 30 employees, is bringing in only about half what it needs to stay even, he said.
Further, dairy farms are being forced to dump some of the milk. Gibson said his operation produces 12,000 gallons of milk a day.
"Nobody told the cows there was a coronavirus," Gibson said.
The cattle and lamb markets are similarly struggling.
While Gibson said hamburger sales and prices are up, because people still can patronize fast-food drive-thrus, there's far less demand for better quality cuts.
"You can't sell very many drive-thru ribeyes or filets," he said. "The expensive cuts are all over the place — you can't sell them."
Fat-cattle prices have dropped from $1.25 per pound before the pandemic to 75 cents now.
"That, my friend, is a bloodbath," Gibson said.
Sheep ranchers are shearing their animals as usual, "but there's zero market for the wool," according to Gibson, because it's sent to textile mills overseas. Those channels are closed for now.
Producers are trying to store the wool in hope it can be sold once conditions improve.
According to the Utah Farm Bureau, corn, cotton and soybean futures have tumbled, ethanol plants around the country are idle, and some fruit and vegetable farmers are finding their best option is leaving produce in the field.
Paycheck protection grants from the federal stimulus program will help some producers like dairies, Gibson said, but otherwise, agricultural businesses face much uncertainty. How much the stimulus may help farm industries is unknown.
"We are desperately waiting for some assistance," he said. "It's hard, you know. As a whole, we are very conservative and we like to live on our own."
Farms are caught in the upheaval like everyone else.
"We didn't create this issue, and it's not made on the decisions we made or didn't make. It's based on a pandemic in the world."
The crisis casts a stark light on the future of strong, local farming.
Gibson's family has been farming on the same West Weber ground for 150 years and they want to keep going. Gibson, 47, said his 84-year-old father still works on the farm and his son, 22, is the seventh generation involved.
"If there's anything in this whole cycle that the public and the government should be concerned about, it's food security, more than oil or any other industries," Gibson said. "We need to make sure we have a strong, abundant local food supply."
He said he believes it's the most important national interest, or should be.
"We as a country have taken food security for granted for decades," he said. "Since the Second World War, we've always assumed there will be plenty there."
But that capability will be diminished if the pandemic takes out more local agricultural businesses.
"When farms and ranches, especially in the Beehive State, go away, they don't come back," Gibson said. "Another farmer's not going to buy that land. And that is not a world that I want to live in."