Texas Living

What a Pandemic Means for Texas Farmers and Ranchers

By Alex Macon 5.15.20

James “Rooter” Brite’s ranch has been in his family since 1929, when his grandfather purchased the land near Bowie and started running the business with Brite’s father. Not long after, in 1934 — in the middle of the Great Depression — the Brites had to euthanize 200 head of cattle.

These “emergency livestock reductions,” for which the Brites were paid by the federal government, came about both to financially support cash-strapped farmers and ranchers and to prevent excess cattle from dying of hunger or thirst. The economic turmoil of the times was worsened by an historic drought.

“They had calves that were six weeks old that never had a drink of water. Things were real tough,” Brite says. “I don’t think we’ll get to that, but you just don’t know.”

Farmers and ranchers across Texas today face unprecedented challenges in dealing with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. But hard times have come before, and the industry is fighting to help farmers and ranchers get through the challenges ahead.

An Industry Disrupted

The past month has seen steep declines in the price forecasts of most agricultural products. The cattle market and the country’s meat supply chain have been thrown into chaos by stoppages at meatpacking plants, where workers have been especially hard-hit by the virus.

 “Our work goes on,” Brite says. “Our work never stops. But the issue is the market. Our markets have deteriorated dramatically.”

He likens the business to a pipeline. “It’s designed to carry so much pressure,” he says. “If you close a valve and keep putting pressure on the other end, something explodes. The packing plants have to run. We have to have a safety valve.”

In previous years, Brite has paid for a put option under his cattle, insuring an extra level of safety in the event of a down market. But the pandemic caught Brite — and everyone else — by surprise.

Relief on the Way

Brite is counting on some relief: He’s enrolled in the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help ensure his two employees continue to be paid, although he’s waiting for answers to several questions on the program. “This stuff is so new,” he says. “It’s going to be helpful, definitely, but nobody knows anything about it.” He has also applied for a loan through the Small Business Administration. (The SBA recently made disaster loans available to agricultural businesses.)

Farmers and ranchers throughout the state should expect some help. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which will provide $16 billion in support to agriculture producers, with another $3 billion going toward the purchase of agricultural products.

Advocacy for the Industry

Last month, Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening praised the community of farmers and ranchers for rising to the occasion to ensure that consumers can count on the continued safety and security of the country’s food supply.

“Texas farmers and ranchers are in a unique position regarding our nation’s response to the pandemic,” Boening said in a statement, in which he explained that the Texas Farm Bureau and 25 other state farm bureaus had joined forces to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide relief aid to cattle ranchers. “Each of us is battling the economic impacts on our own farm and ranch while remaining committed to feeding our country.”

The Texas Farm Bureau has gathered many resources related to funding, infrastructure, animal health, and news to help businesses reeling from the pandemic navigate a path forward. The page includes details on some of the food and agriculture provisions created by the $2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed last month.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Across the state, there have been examples of local communities stepping up support for local farmers. The Austin American-Statesmanreports that many Central Texas farmers are finding success in going straight to local farmers markets to sell their goods directly to consumers, in some cases making up for the losses they’d experienced from shut-down restaurants and other bulk purchasers. In Tomball, a restaurant launched a weekly pop-up farmers market to support local agriculture producers. A McKinney restaurateur set up a resource website and farm crisis fund for local vendors.

Challenges Ahead

Meanwhile, agriculture producers and ranchers are adapting to a world that’s being remade every day. Some cattle auctions are being held with social distancing guidelines in place, while dairy and corn farmers are being asked to reduce their supplies.

Over the coming weeks and months, Brite says he will have to consider what’s best for his business, his cattle, and the conservation of the land he’s devoted his life to. As recently as 2011, after the worst single-year drought in Texas history, he had to reduce his herd by 33%. It took several years to recover.

“Our native lands, even our improved lands, are so critical to what our future is going to be. If we have to destroy cattle, that hurts,” he says. “But that’s better than doing some long-term damage to this resource. The grass is our life.”

It’s impossible to predict how the current crisis will unfold. “We’re in totally uncharted territory,” Brite says. But his ranch has weathered tough times before. It can do so again.

© 2020 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance