County farmers struggling amidst pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on Tennessee agriculture, and farmers here in Carroll County are feeling the pain.

Hit particularly hard has been the cattle market – due in large part to a sharp decline in demand for meat from restaurants that have either closed down or have had to limit their business to pickup and delivery orders.

“It’s got the whole market down,” said Gary Hilliard, who has been raising cattle in Carroll County for nearly 40 years. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

According to Hilliard, beef prices have fallen to around 30 or 40 cents a pound – down from about $1.50 a pound earlier this year.

Hilliard currently has around 50 “mama cows” in his herd.

Chris Boxell, owner of Southwestern Stock Yards in Huntingdon, said that social distancing limits have cut into the numbers showing up for Tuesday cattle sales and cut into the prices people can get for their cattle.

“It’s bad,” said Boxell. “It sure has depressed market prices and cost farmers a lot of money.”

Boxell pointed out that many meat processing plants have had to shut down due to employee infections, making it hard for many to find a place to sell their meat for processing.

According to Lee Maddox, director of communications for Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, prices for feeder cattle have fallen nearly 30 percent since January, while hog prices have dropped by as much as 45 percent.

Dr. Aaron Smith, crop marketing specialist with the UT Extension Service, estimated that if losses experienced so far this year by cattle markets were applied to a full year of production, it would represent a total loss of $115.3 million for Tennessee cattle producers.

Maddox added that row crops have also witnessed a substantial price decline ranging from seven to 26 percent since the start of the year, depending on the type of crop.

“For row crop farmers, there is more time for prices to rebound on the crops they are planting this spring,” said Maddox. “For livestock farmers in general, there is a much shorter marketing window, and those losses are, in many instances, immediate.”

Hilliard – who also raises corn, soybeans, and wheat on 850 acres along Green Allen Springs Road near Huntingdon – said corn has fallen about 25 percent to around 80 cents a bushel, the price of soybeans has fallen by around $1 per bushel, and wheat has lost between 50 and 70 cents a bushel.

Kim Renfroe, owner of Renfroe Farms in Huntingdon, pointed out that falling commodity futures are really putting the squeeze on row crop farmers.

“We market our products based on futures,” said Renfroe. “We were just coming out of a slump before all this started, and now it’s a challenge to make ends meet.”

Carroll County’s Agriculture Extension Agent Kenny Herndon encouraged local farmers to keep an eye on the markets and be ready to adapt to change.

“Just be flexible,” he said. “It’s still a changing environment, and there are still a lot of questions up in the air. The whole global trade market is struggling right now.”

On a positive note, Herndon pointed out that grocery stores are doing really good business – something that may bode well for farmers if the current level of consumption continues.

“People are buying a lot of food right now,” he said, “and the trucks are running around the clock.”

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