With the coronavirus and a hard freeze, Utah’s agriculture industry is suffering

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan Riley of Riley Farm Foods inspects a Rosa peach tree blossom to determine if the buds have died from frost, April 14, 2020.

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From dairy farms and cattle ranches to sheep-shearing pens and fruit orchards — Utah’s agriculture industry is suffering.

Most of the misery can be attributed to the closing of schools, restaurants and other food service businesses due to the coronavirus. But nippy spring weather has added to the misfortune by damaging fruit crops in northern Utah.

“Our agriculture industry is in crisis right now,” said Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau, “and every Utahn should be concerned about that. A viable agriculture industry is the base of any good economy.”

Jordan Riley said his fruit farm in Perry hasn’t been hurt by the coronavirus — although it did delay by a week the arrival of some workers from Mexico.

Farmworkers are considered essential employees and those who have worked in previous years are returning without significant delays. It’s been more difficult for new workers who require an interview because of social distancing rules.

Riley said his workers are pruning, which keeps them apart by more than the 6-foot distance required. And he has helped them learn how to order groceries for pickup and get a debit card so they can avoid using cash.

The harm he received came Tuesday, when overnight temperatures dropped below freezing and damaged fruit. It’s not a total loss, he said. “I still have about 30% of my peaches and some apricots.”

The damage was worse in Utah County, said Curtis Rowley, of Cherry Hill Farms in Payson, who spent much of Wednesday assessing frost damage. “Right now, we have lost at least half of the peaches, roughly half of the tart cherries and some apples."

If temperatures and cloud cover cooperate — though a freeze was forecast overnight for Friday — over the next few days, he added, “we should have enough to have a full crop.”

Utah orchards are just one part, however, of an agricultural industry in turmoil.

As schools shuttered, restaurants shut down (save for takeout service) and exports were cut off, the demand for milk, beef, lamb and other agricultural products has shifted, said Gibson, a west Weber dairy farmer.

He ticked off how the pandemic has affected specific industries:

Dairy • Utah farmers are disposing of thousands of gallons of excess milk — possibly as much as 50,000 gallons a day. Most are sending the excess to animal farms to be used as feed, which for farmers is “about the same thing” as dumping. Gibson said about 42% of fluid milk in Utah usually is sold to food services, while another 25% is exported. “That’s 67% of our industry that’s been whacked in the face.”

Meat • The majority of meats from steaks to leg of lamb are sold to restaurants and cruise ships, which have been shut down across the country. The drop in sales comes at the same time that some of the country’s largest meat-processing plants — including the Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota — have been forced to temporarily close due to the pandemic. If the facilities remain closed for an extended period, some in the industry are predicting potential shortages.

Labor • Sheep ranchers face two other obstacles because of foreign travel restrictions. They have been unable to sell wool, because the testing experts from New Zealand have been unable to come into the country and most sheep workers come from Peru and have been struggling to get to the U.S.

“The problem we have now is knowing when it will be over. Next week? Next month? And will it go back to normal?” Gibson said. “We’ve built an entire industry around export and food service, and will it be severely different? Or do we need to create a new infrastructure.”

There are a few positives: The turkey industry, based in Moroni, continues to be one, and Utah has not had to plow under fresh produce crops like warmer weather states like California, Arizona and Florida have, because the growing season starts later.