TROUTVILLE—The lowing rose from a Botetourt County valley as cattle farmer Jay Etzler carried down a tub of feed. A herd sauntered up to meet him, heads dropping to the ground to get at what he shook from the bucket on a drizzly, foggy morning.
It was normal outside for early spring. But trouble is always close at hand on a farm. Too much rain, not enough rain, unseasonable cold spells, unseasonable hot spells and more can upend agriculture.
Etzler, whose family has been farming the same spot in Botetourt County for four generations—and elsewhere in the county since the 1700s—said he has seen all sorts of troubles. But COVID-19 presented a new set of challenges. He watched prices for his cattle crater as the pandemic disrupted the supply chain.
Etzler was the county’s commissioner of the revenue from the mid-1990s to 2011 but retired to devote his time to the farm, which also deals in cured ham and bacon.
“We take what the market offers or we don’t sell,” Etzler said about his small business. “And when the COVID came along with the supply chain disruptions, the market for demand for our cattle really softened, to the point where we saw upward of 30% reduction in the price that was offered for the cattle.”
The U.S. government provided assistance, in the form of the U.S. Farm Service Agency’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. But in a rarity for Virginia, Botetourt County came through with CARES Act dollars for Etzler and 49 other farmers there.
County officials set aside $157,672 for farmers and delivered it in grants ranging from $1,250 to $4,000, said Ken McFadyen, director of the Botetourt County Economic Development Authority.
Andrew Smith, associate director of the Virginia Farm Bureau in Richmond, said that he was unaware of any other county in the commonwealth providing CARES Act money specifically to its farmers. Tony Banks, a Virginia Farm Bureau commodity marketing specialist, said that some farmers in the state might have applied for small business grants—for instance, if they did direct marketing and point-of-sale transactions—but he, too was unaware of a locality dedicating grants to farmers.
Etzler and his uncle, farm co-owner George Etzel, received $4,000. Jay Etzler said they spent it on feed. The money went quickly, but it was welcome, he said.
“Between the government programs and the thoughtfulness of Botetourt County … that money was very helpful,” Etzler said.
Botetourt, along with many Virginia localities, rolled out small-business grant programs. It distributed grants of $2,500 to $5,000 to businesses for use in marketing, advertising, accounting, legal services, computer hardware and software, and more, McFadyen said.
“That was not a whole lot different from what other localities did,” he said.
In all, 82 county businesses received $264,000. But Fincastle District Supervisor Richard Bailey, a veterinarian raised on a small family farm, felt a key group was missing out.
“It dawned on me that none of the application process for the small business grants … was really applying to farms,” said Bailey, who still keeps a few head of cattle. “The application kind of would preclude farms because they aren’t required to get business licenses and pay [business professional occupational license taxes] in that regard.”
The county used that BPOL tax to identify small businesses that qualified for the CARES grants, he said.
“There wasn’t really a way for them to apply for the small business grants,” Bailey said. “I basically said, Hey, I consider the farming community here a very integral part of our economy and a small business unto itself, and we need a way to make that work for them as well.”
That didn’t mean they weren’t eligible, McFayden said. They simply don’t need the same things that other small businesses do.
“Farmers don’t all necessarily need marketing and advertising,” McFayden said. “A lot of what they do is commodity-based, and the losses they suffered in 2020 and continue to suffer are [because] the commodity market for whatever it is—beef or silage or whatever they’re growing—has not returned, or it’s been depressed as consumption has decreased. So they just needed more concentrated assistance to help with their business losses.”
The county looked to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, farmers.gov, the program provides financial assistance to agricultural commodities producers who have suffered at least 5% in price decline or had losses from COVID-19-induced market supply chain disruptions, and require additional marketing help.
The county learned that there were about 150 Botetourt County farmers who were eligible to receive this assistance. Using that information, the county crafted a separate grant program for farmers that eliminated the requirements that other small businesses had to meet, “because farmers simply don’t have those expenses,” McFayden said.
Word went out in August, and farmers such as Etzler received their grants in the fall.
Bailey was happy to see it work out for the farmers, many of whom he has known his entire life.
“They’re vital parts of our community,” the supervisor said. “They’re hard working people. They’re friends of mine. They’re friends of everybody’s, and they need to be treated in the same light as all our other small businesses.”
Since then, things have begun to normalize some, as restaurants and schools—huge customers for both meat and dairy farmers—have begun to reopen and move toward full capacity, Etzler said. His farm buys calves after weaning, then sells them to feed yards after they reach about 800 pounds.
“So much of the higher-quality cuts of beef were consumed in restaurants, and with the closure of the restaurants, that demand softened considerably,” Etzler said. “The unfortunate thing was consumers saw prices increase in grocery stores, where they were securing more of their food, vs. restaurants that were no longer open and available. The demand for those products increased. The price increased. Yet coming back down the chain, we saw the opposite effect.
“The dairy farmers saw much of the same with the school closures and the institutional demand decreasing as it did. It was so unfortunate to go to the grocery store and see the refrigerators empty of milk, and then turn on the news and see dairy farmers dumping milk. That was just a really different time for us.”
As times seem to be turning again, a new round of relief is in the offing for farmers. The USDA announced late last month that it is dedicating at least $6 billion toward programs that will aid an even broader set of farmers. Bailey was unsure what the county might receive from the new stimulus package, which went into effect in March.
"They’re vital parts of our community. They’re hard working people. They’re friends of mine. They’re friends of everybody’s, and they need to be treated in the same light as all our other small businesses."
-- Fincastle District Supervisor Richard Bailey on farmers