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COVID-19 adds uncertainty to farmers' spring growing season

Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Greenhouse production is in full swing, as field crops are being started.

In the Southtowns' Eden Valley, the first signs of spring are plastic sheeting and small plastic caps in the fields and the shades of green visible through greenhouse walls. Farming may be an inherently risky business, but last week's snow shows that's always true in a year of unknowns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to changes this year, with most restaurants closed or reduced to takeout, travel mostly ended. and school cafeterias quiet.

Still, farmers have warehouses of food being prepped for planting outside or already out there with plastic protecting the tender sprouts from the area's fickle weather. Farmer Dennis Brawdy said this year is stranger than most because major customers are closed.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"Your best grades go to the grocery stores because that's what consumers expect to see, but your off-grades generally go to some sort of institutional food service or whatever because they're processed and chopped and what have you. So if we don't have the ability to sell that, that takes a huge chunk out of our business," Brawdy said.

Brawdy is a partner in Amos Zittel and Sons, a six-generation farm in Eden. Eden Valley Growers has Erie County's Food Hub, which collects food from growers and is delivering most crops within hours as far as New York City.

Operations Manager Dennis Walczak said farmers are mostly relying on greenhouses right now.

"We've got greenhouse production in full swing," he said. "We're growing potted herbs, we're growing annuals, perennials, geranimums, all the stuff for gardening. And on top of it, a lot of our field crops are being started and well underway in our greenhouses: green peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, green and yellow squash, cabbage, you name it. It's ready to go out in the field very soon."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Farmers are optimists at a time when prices for their crops haven't changed in decades and labor costs for Mexican workers who are brought in legally are going up $150,000 because state-mandated wages are up for Zittel's. That's if they all can make it in, because the consulates in Mexico are closed and the only workers who can come in are those who don't need contact with the consulates and can ride the rental trucks to the Eden Valley to work.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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