The pandemic's impact on Southwest Michigan's food chain

NOW: The pandemic’s impact on Southwest Michigan’s food chain

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. -- Peaches, apples, pears and all types of berries are able to be grown in Southwest Michigan due to its quality of soil, elevation and proximity to Lake Michigan – plus, the economic benefit of being so close to the Chicago market.

But supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and lack of those farmers markets have all created serious obstacles in allowing these local business owners to keep their farms alive. 

Spring is the time farmers can start to picture the fruits of their labor.

By March, weather permitting, their crops are in good condition and right on track for an early May bloom.

But, there was no way to prepare for how the first weeks of a pandemic – and food shortages – would impact their supply. 

“When everything shut down, store managers called to double their order.”

Mike Hildebrand said the start of the pandemic brought a business boom for his Berrien Springs farm.

“Our packing shed and shipping levels went to fall levels, we were full-time, as fast as we could,” said Hildebrand.

But as those two weeks to flatten the curve turned to a month-long shutdown, all that product suddenly risked going to waste.

Shuler Dairy Farm has been in Baroda for over 100 years – today, they have a robotic milker that their 60 cows can use on their own 24/7.

It’s done wonders for how quickly they can prepare the milk, but then they lost that demand from their biggest revenue source.

“Five years ago, we were getting $26 for every 100 pounds of milk we could sell, last June we got $11.50,” said owner Bill Shuler. “The price of milk hasn’t been all that great, but when COVID-19 hit and we lost the schools and restaurants, that was kind of the knife in the heart for many dairy farmers.”

Luckily, a century of business has fostered a sense of resiliency for the Shuler family, but for new farmers Paul and Shelli Meulemans, they had to consider if their passion project would be able to withstand the year. 

“There was that time where things were really dialing back that we had a lot of money sitting out there, I was very, very nervous.”

Fast forward to May 2020 and farmers market season is up in the air, something that would’ve been detrimental for the Meulemans’s four-year-old Wild Coyote Farm in Berrien Springs. 

A plethora of greens, root and stem vegetables all sitting out on the field – but then, a lightbulb went off - that farmers, too, could jump on the E-commerce train. 

“We partnered with a program called Harvey and it’s online and allows people to customize their produce every week, so we were able to go there and in two weeks sell quite a few boxes,” said Paul.    

Granor Farm in Three Oaks also expanding on their direct access to clients this year with Community Supported Agriculture, a program where their Southwest Michigan and Chicago clientele can opt-in to a weekly pick up of whatever’s in season at the farm.

2020 being a year like no other for that farm-to-fork access.

“A couple years ago it would take us maybe three months to sell out our CSA of 100 members, this year when we opened registration it took us about three hours,” said Wesley Rieth, Operations Manager.

But, there were still factors the farmers had no control over, like labor shortages caused by the pandemic.

“I was looking for a truck driver and luckily I found someone who had never driven a truck before but reached out and said ‘How do I get my CDL?’ I said, ‘Come work for me and I’ll pay for it,’” said Hildebrand.

That trickling down to supply chain delays, creating obstacles for Southwest Michigan’s wine country.

Round Barn in Baroda and Tabor Hill in Buchanan, still recovering from the detrimental impact past winters have had on their grapes.  

“Making sure the bottles are coming in on time, labels, packaging, etc. has been held up and it’s one more thing to have to deal with in this last year of craziness,” said Matt Moersch, CEO of Moersch Hospitality Group.

All of these impacts were not just felt in Southwest Michigan, but magnified when you look at the country as a whole, and that shock to the supply chain was not only felt by the farmers.

“It also affected transportation systems, retail systems, companies that manufacture products – corn for example, the companies that crush it and make oil or starch, they had to adjust really quickly – this was something that shut down the economy hard and fast,” said Michael Anderson, Vice-President of Trade & Industry Affairs at the Corn Refiners Association.

Various agriculture groups came together for a study called Feeding the Economy – looking at how agriculture jobs, exports and spending contribute to the U.S. fiscally.

Their findings for 2020:

The industry accounts for 40 million U.S. jobs, $2 trillion in wages and $155 billion in exports.

In Michigan alone, over 1 million people work in the agriculture industry, accounting for $46 billion in wages.

These groups, hoping their study is a reminder of how vital the industry is to our national and global economy and shows those local farmers that better days are ahead.

“Prices are on the rise which is good for the producers, we’ve also been able to keep our exports flowing,” said Anderson. “There’s been some tightness in shipping and rail because of that demand, but the food and agriculture sector is one of the most resilient in the U.S. economy.”

Feeding the Economy’s study also allowed you to look at specific districts in Michigan – Berrien County provided nearly 100,000 jobs this year for a total of $3.8 billion in wages.

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