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Idaho farmers forge ahead through coronavirus outbreak

By Bill Schaefer

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

Planting and grazing season is starting up and Idaho’s farmers and ranchers are trying to balance protecting both their business interests and the health and welfare of their workers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has dominated the headlines for the past three months.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a statewide 21-day stay-home order on March 25 in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. Little’s proclamation deems “food cultivation, including farming, livestock, and fishing” as an essential business.

Across Idaho, foreign workers who come to the United States seasonally through the H2-A agricultural guest worker program have started returning to work on farms and ranches. 

Two farmers and one sheepherder interviewed for this story compared these times to uncharted waters and they are uncertain how the year will play out and where they will land eventually.

Henry Etcheverry grew up in the sheepherding business and operates a ranch near Rupert. 

Etcheverry relies on the help of 18 migrant workers, 17 from Peru, who employed through the H2-A program. 

Lambing season is over and Etcheverry and his men are beginning to move an estimated 14,800 ewes and lambs east across the Arco desert, south of Craters of the Moon National Monument, to U.S. Bureau of Land Management grazing fields.   

Etcheverry expressed deep concern about the effects that exposure to the coronavirus would have on his crew and business. The 18 men share living quarters in three bunkhouses and eat three daily meals together. 

“I told them, you guys are on your honor but this is serious and we’re not going to have it,” Etcheverry said. “This virus, we cannot take a chance and I do not want them going to town at all.”

He said he has asked the men to avoid going to town in an effort to keep potential exposure to the virus to a minimum. A 14-day quarantine would result in increased feed costs.

“We can’t afford to have that (virus) out here because it’ll go through the place,” Etcheverry said. “I’d be stuck feeding that expensive alfalfa hay to my sheep and my costs would be exorbitant.”

Etcheverry said he and his men were following President Trump’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidelines in avoiding unnecessary human contact.

Etcheverry said that he was  slightly inconvenienced by the run on groceries and paper goods but that his inventory of dry goods was sufficiently stocked up prior to the panic buying.

“I stocked up before this thing ever hit this area,” he said.

Etcheverry predicted an uncertain future for the lamb market.

“I see some pretty dark clouds,” he said. “I’ll tell you why. Lamb is traditionally eaten in the high-end restaurants in the east and in other restaurants and they have basically shut down. I’m just scared to death what’s happening in the market….”

Merrill Hanny grows about 500 acres of potatoes outside of Shelley, in Bingham County. He is expecting six H2-A workers to arrive from Mexico around April 20.

Hanny said he’ll have an orientation session on personal hygiene when the men arrive. Other than that and keeping social distance within their housing, Hanny said that there’s not much more he can do.

“Hopefully, this enactment by the governor, the lockdown, it’s over by then,” he said. “By the time they come we’re hoping we’re through the worst of the crisis.”

Looking forward to the coming season, Hanny expressed a pragmatic philosophy common to anyone who has been in the agricultural sector for any period of time.

“You have to be cautiously optimistic,” he said. “This affects the whole world. It’s a worldwide economy that has come into play. It will affect prices up and down and the biggest thing is none of us have been down this path before. So there’s a lot of unknown factors yet to play out.”

Armand Eckert grows sugar beets, barley, winter wheat and alfalfa in the Magic Valley. The center of his farming operation is about 10 miles northwest of Buhl. 

Eckert employs eight H2-A workers. He said seven of them arrived around March 4, with one delayed by paper work at the border. He has multiple housing units on his farm with no more than three workers per household.

Eckert said the very nature of his farming operation means he and his workers are self-quarantined.

“Out here we’re not around anyone. There’s not another human being or building in sight,” he said. “We’re pretty isolated onto itself. We’re already kind of self-quarantined just being out here.”

Eckert said that when he spoke with his farm workers about coronavirus, they were pretty knowledgeable about the situation.

“If somebody gets sick we’re going to get him tested to make sure that they don’t have that particular virus and get them taken care of,” Eckert said. “Then we’ll definitely have to take some steps to protect the rest of the crew.”

He said the measures initiated by the governor were necessary but he hopes that cases of the virus will diminish as the climate warms up.

Eckert said he is concerned about securing parts for equipment breakdowns during harvest season but he hopes that his inventory of parts will get him through harvest.

“I hope this thing gets past,” he said of the pandemic’s effects. “We know people that are in the service industry and are out of jobs and we’re trying to step down and help them where the need arises. Let’s hope this thing gets past us and as a country we get back on our feet and get going again.”