Wheat farmers worry that difficulty in getting parts could cause them problems as they adjust to planting during the coronavirus pandemic. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Crews at Marci Green’s farm south of Spokane are finishing months’ worth of mechanic work and preparations until the weather warms the soil enough to begin the spring wheat planting.
But just like nearly everyone, farmers face even more uncertainty than normal as they struggle with parts delays and figuring out how to correctly keep a social distance whenever they run to town for parts or handle fertilizer deliveries.
“Wheat farming is a labor-intensive type business,” said Green, who farms near Fairfield. “If our suppliers, if people at fertilizer and chemical dealers, start having employees not showing up or who get sick, that would affect us.”
Green said the farm has been getting ready for several months and has had some trouble getting parts.
The big test comes when the tractors hit the field to spray fertilizer or to plant.
“If you have a breakdown, you need that part to get it fixed quickly,” she said. “That’s where it could become a problem.”
Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, got results back this week of a survey in which farmers expressed a number of concerns, including the logistics necessary to service their machines.
About 80% of the farmers had moderate or higher concerns about the pandemic and its effects on them personally and on their farms.
“I think their concern is that since we are considered essential, will all the services they need be available to them so that we can keep moving,” she said.
While only 23% reported having experienced transportation challenges, many expressed concern that the effects of extending stay-at home orders will exacerbate those issues.
“Many respondents are looking to the future and the uncertainty that lies ahead with the ability to ship product and receive inputs and supplies,” Hennings said.
Casey Jones, part owner of Jones Truck and Implement in Colfax, said his business has experienced delays in getting parts shipped in from China and Italy.
“It’s only going to intensify as the year goes on,” Jones said of the parts disruption. “Different manufacturers are shutting down.
“Who knows what that will do to the supply chain for the rest of the year?”
Jones, whose grandfather started the business about 80 years ago, said if the supply chain slows to the point it takes a month to get orders filled, it could devastate farmers.
“When it’s time to go harvest, being four weeks behind could be the difference between having a crop and not having a crop,” he said.
Green, who sits on the wheat growers association executive committee, said the new normal involves calling the parts store ahead of time and having those parts delivered to the parking lot.
“We have to go pick up seed and fertilizer. When you do that, you have to come in contact with people,” she said. “My daughter-in-law is pregnant. We have the same concerns that everybody else has.”
Hennings said national wheat advocates are trying to figure out whether U.S. Small Business Administration loans are available to farmers, after hearing conflicting information about whether farmers qualify.
While the government pushed back the April 15 deadline for filing taxes to July 15, that may have an adverse effect on farmers.
She said most banks require a tax statement from farmers if they seek to adjust or increase their lines of credit they use to keep them farming.
Later tax dates could mean that certified public accountants the farmers need to file their taxes will be too busy with other accounts to respond with the later filing date, she said.
“Farmers are thankful they are allowing people more time to get this in, but farmers have deadlines for their crop year,” Hennings said. “July 15, that’s when they are harvesting. They need to get their funds in a timely manner with all their expenses.”
Green said farmers know how to deal with uncertainty, including fluctuating prices, weather or failing trade agreements. But the pandemic poses a completely different set of unknowns.
“We are social distancing,” Green said. “We don’t consider ourselves having a disaster yet. It all depends on what happens in the next few months.”