Named essential workers, the country’s small farmers, ranchers and farmworkers are coping with the pandemic without a corporate safety net, persevering through shutdowns, slowdowns and supply-chain meltdowns.
Moorefield, W.Va., is an Appalachian town of about 2,500 people, changed forever by Pilgrim’s Pride’s three poultry plants clustered at the South Branch of the Potomac River. Nearly 3,000 miles west, Salinas, in Monterey County, Calif., made famous by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, is an agricultural city of 155,000 that produces a significant portion of the nation’s leaf and head lettuces, celery, broccoli and strawberries.
In these two American breadbasket communities, small farmers and ranchers have been left to improvise as their markets swivel and contract. In its early months considered an urban problem, the coronavirus has been especially brutal in rural agricultural communities, where farmworkers were slow to get personal protective equipment and effective safety protocols.
In both Salinas and Moorefield, the coronavirus has contributed layers of complexity to an already backbreaking professional path. Several years of historically poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs under the Trump administration have cut off potential for agricultural exports and left farmers with few reserves before the pandemic began to hopscotch across the country.
For Mary Jo Keller, 90, Moorefield has always been home, where she and her family make a dwindling living from dairy cows. Not far away, Rick Woodworth raises cattle on Flying W Farms — he owns them from birth to slaughter, growing all his own feed, a refutation of modern industrial agricultural models epitomized by Pilgrim’s.
“We have not participated with Pilgrim’s Pride or been involved with them in any way, shape or form,” he says. “I’m a Type A personality clear off the chart: I want to be in control of my destiny, not be on a contract to produce for Pilgrim’s. We’ve chosen to go our own way and take our own risks.”
More than half of all agricultural sales in the state are poultry and eggs, a market dominated by large-scale, vertically integrated facilities owned by multinational food companies. They depend on tight margins, a constant supply of new workers and government support that prioritizes increased line speed and efficiency. Cattle ranchers in the area are rare these days, dairy farmers all but extinct. What these small operators lack in economies of scale they gain in autonomy and open space.
In Salinas, the small independent farmers have few choices: sell to restaurants and at farmers markets, or at a reduced price to wholesalers. Most of Salinas’s organic growers sell their products to a single distributor: Coke Farm, an organic grower/shipper in nearby San Juan Bautista.
Celsa Ortega, Rigoberto Bucio and Javier Zamora each have taken a new route to independence. Immigrants from Mexico, all three began as workers on large farms, going through programs with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a nonprofit that trains limited-resource and aspiring organic farmers and then equips them with land. Ortega farms only an acre, Bucio farms 12 and Zamora a little over 100 — small farmers battling the “get big or get out” ethos that has taken root in agriculture since the 1970s.
Small farmers, new farmers and farmers of color, struggling in the shadow of Big Ag, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and are often not eligible for federal relief — many didn’t qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans or the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, which excludes those who rely on direct-to-consumer sales. And while tens of billions of dollars have been funneled to large-scale ranches and meat processing companies and commodity row crop farmers in the South and Midwest, those who grow “specialty crops,” the fruits and vegetables humans eat, have frequently not qualified for support.
Much in the way the Dust Bowl of the 1930s prompted one of the largest migrations in our history, the adversity has changed lives and spurred many small farmers and ranchers to think entrepreneurially about new markets.
About 60 miles from the tech epicenter of Silicon Valley, the Salinas Valley, often called "the Salad Bowl of the World,” is home to about 90,000 farmworkers. With an average wage of $25,000, housing is expensive and farmworkers often crowd together in apartments. Celsa Ortega, 33, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her four children, Kaivey, 14, Michael, 12, Lucero, 9, and Rafael, 6. She grew up in a small town in Oaxaca, finishing junior high school in Mexico and immigrating to the United States in 2006.
“I started in the fields, picking strawberries, then harvesting cilantro. That’s what I felt most comfortable doing,” she said through a translator. She went through an agricultural training program and now farms her own acre, half of which is planted with romaine lettuce, which, like many farmers her size, she sells to organic wholesaler Coke Farm. The payment takes a while to get to her hands, she says, which makes it hard to reinvest in the next seeds and soil amendments.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she grew broccoli for restaurants, harvesting the main head and letting the side shoots regrow. When restaurants closed and she had no buyers, she disked all her broccoli back into the earth, taking on an additional job at night so she could supervise her children’s schoolwork during the day.
Constant expansion, with its promise of greater economies of scale, has been the agricultural mantra since Earl Butz was the secretary of agriculture in the 1970s — Ortega knows this applies to her, too, but to grow her acreage she needs more capital. She says she did not qualify for any pandemic-related agricultural assistance.
“I got a job cleaning model houses at night. I still had bills to pay and I didn’t have the security that my harvest would provide us with enough resources.”
“I’m just getting started with my business; it’s a brand-new farm. I will need to get more land to grow, but I need to support that.” — Celsa Ortega
With schools closed and without any child care, Ortega has had to think creatively. Each of her children was supplied with a school-issued laptop, but the apartment doesn’t have enough room for each child to have a workspace and the Internet isn’t strong enough for them to be connected all at once. She’s taken to bringing two of her kids to the field with her. They do their lessons in the car using a wireless hotspot, occasionally pausing schoolwork to help her weed and harvest.
“My oldest, Kaivey, is capable of staying at home and looking after his siblings,” says Ortega. “But they aren’t doing well in school because they don’t have the supervision.”
And with all the kids at home, the preparation and expense of every meal falls to Ortega. She’s worried about rumors of a wilt befalling romaine in Monterey County that makes it look burned. She can’t afford to have a crop wiped out.
Like Salinas, Moorefield has always been an agricultural area, with early settlers as far back as the 1770s raising cattle and growing corn and hay for animal feed. But by the 1930s it became known as the Poultry Capital of West Virginia, broiler and laying hen operations casting an ever-greater shadow over the town, perfuming the air with a distinct, and not always pleasant, chickeniness.
For more than a decade, hundreds of refugee and migrant families have arrived in Moorefield from the eastern African countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia, from Guatemala and from Myanmar (also known as Burma). They come to work at one of three Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plants in town. They come to be sorters, live hangers (a low-wage job, it requires shackling live birds upside-down) and line workers at Hardy County’s biggest employer. One of the largest chicken producers in the United States, Pilgrim’s Pride is majority-owned by JBS S.A., the largest meat processing company in the world.
“Everyone here who doesn’t have a high school education, that is their only job, that or the cabinet factory,” says Mary Jo Keller. “We just have those two things in Moorefield.”
The changes brought by the influx of Pilgrim’s workers has altered this historic town. Hardy County now has more students who speak English as a second language than anywhere else in the state. Keller has watched international restaurants pop up in this meat-and-potatoes town. She has watched the newcomers become integrated in the community, watched them tackle life milestones like learning to drive. Keller remembers witnessing a woman inexpertly pull to the curb, empathizing with her apparent frustration. “The woman got out and went down to the riverbank and a man came down and hugged her, then they got back into the car with him in the driver’s seat.”
Rick Woodworth’s 800-acre ranch is about 20 miles from the Pilgrim’s Pride facilities, on the Virginia side of the mountain.
He’s anomalous in the ranching business. In a typical large-scale operation, a steer may go through five or six sets of hands before it reaches the grocery store or your plate. Woodworth owns the whole life cycle of his cattle, from birth to pasture grazing, to feedlot, to slaughter, to dry aging, then either direct-to-restaurant or direct-to-consumer.
Woodworth’s parents started ranching in the 1950s when his father got out of the service. Woodworth taught college-level animal science for 14 years before following his father into the family business.
“My wife and I both left the farm and came back. It’s a good life and a lot of work," he said. "My three kids understand the value of a dollar.”
“I want to be in control of my destiny, not be on a contract to produce for Pilgrim’s Pride. We’ve chosen to go our own way and take our own risks.” — Rick Woodworth
For Woodworth, the pandemic has presented challenges but also opportunities. His 65-seat restaurant, where he sells burgers and hoagies, with prime-rib specials on the weekend, had to shut down for a while. But sales direct to consumers have stayed strong.
“Consumers have more awareness about the source of their product” since the pandemic, he says.
The virus has wreaked havoc on the industry’s supply chain, with some plants shutting down amid coronavirus outbreaks and work slowing to a trickle in others as safety measures were put in place. Commodity beef prices fell as ranchers searched for capacity at slaughterhouses.
But independent ranchers aren’t tied to the vicissitudes of the nation’s cattle auctions and Woodworth said his prices remained firm. “There’s a lot of talk about farm to table, but when the rubber meets the road it comes down to price,” he says. “I won’t change my price.”
In the peak of harvest season this summer, Monterey County became an epicenter of the state’s coronavirus cases. A recent University of California at Berkeley study shows that 13 percent of Salinas Valley farmworkers tested positive for the virus between July and November, compared with about 3 percent of Californians overall.
Latino workers make up 93 percent of the state’s agricultural laborers, some H-2A visa workers from Mexico, but many more of them permanent residents or undocumented migrant workers. Unlike outbreaks in American meat processing facilities, farmworkers’ mobility and immigration status often made it hard to document how many of their lives were affected or curtailed by the virus.
Small farmers also have had trouble keeping enough workers to harvest what is frequently an ephemeral crop — a lag of even a few days can mean the difference between solvency and ruin. In California and elsewhere there were reports of fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields.
Rigoberto Bucio, 32, grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, and came to the United States on his own at age 16.
“I needed a job and people were refusing me work because of my age. I got a job with one of the ALBA farmers, growing strawberries, zucchini and tomatoes,” he said of the nonprofit farm education and business incubator program. “I had no prior knowledge about farming and vegetables, other than how to eat them. I realized there wasn’t much opportunity doing what I was doing, working on someone else’s land, so I enrolled in the program at ALBA.”
Bucio now owns 12 acres where he farms organic celery, lettuces, kale and broccoli, which he sells to Coke Farm. It is his children who inspired him to farm organically, despite having fewer tools available to fight weeds and disease: “It’s what keeps me motivated. It’s healthy and free of pesticides. I want my kids to eat healthy.”
But with the past few years’ farm labor shortage heightened by fears about the coronavirus, Bucio didn’t have enough workers this year and lost much of his harvest. “Since I couldn’t harvest some crops, I couldn’t sell them. But I have two wonderful kids, 8 and 11, who keep me motivated,” Bucio said through a translator.
“It’s hard labor and a daily battle to care for a living organism that has different needs. It’s not the same as overseeing a bunch of batteries or a bunch of tires.” — Rigoberto Bucio
Members of the West Virginia National Guard began testing workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plants in Moorefield for the coronavirus in May, revealing a small number of positive cases. Hardy County kept the virus largely at bay until mid-November, when the state began to routinely see more than 1,000 new cases daily.
This summer, Mary Jo Keller and her son, Chris, wore masks when they went to town, washed their hands after they went to the store. Petersburg, in nearby Grant County, was hit hard, so they stayed away. Now they spend most of their time on the farm in the house they built in 1953, living off Mary Jo’s Social Security and Moorefield High School librarian’s pension. There used to be nine dairies in this little valley that covers three counties. For about 16 years, Chris Keller’s was the only one left, a tanker coming from Oakland, Md., to pick up his milk each week.
“On December 17th, 2017, they wrote him a letter to say they couldn’t afford to make the trip for his one tank of milk,” Mary Jo remembers. “He still will not quit milking. He brings a gallon bucket home every other day. He drinks most of it. Store-bought milk doesn’t even taste like milk. Whatever he doesn’t drink or give away he dumps down the drain. As soon as my son graduated high school, he went to a school for artificial insemination. He’s bred every one of those cows. I say, ‘You’ve just got cows in your blood, quit before you ruin your health.’ ”
Mary Jo’s father and grandfather were in the cattle business. Her husband of 67 years, Robert Keller, was a dairyman on this land before he died four years ago. They had three sons but knew they couldn’t all make a living on the farm — two went out of state to college and Chris stayed. Chris has lost money the past two years on the small amount of corn and hay he grows, and he and his mother expect this year will be even worse because of the pandemic.
“The government should have helped the farmers by getting after these big corporations taking all the money and cutting out the dairy farmers. I can’t tell you how many dairy farmers committed suicide,” Mary Jo said. “Farming is just a sad state of affairs.”
“Chris doesn’t want to go somewhere else or do something else. At his age he shouldn’t have to.” — Mary Jo Keller
In Monterey County, the average farm size is 1,000 acres.
By comparison, Javier Zamora, who farms about 100 acres on a few different plots, is tiny. But with 45 employees, he was large enough to be approved for a $130,000 PPP loan and a $72,000 Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payment, which he doesn’t have to pay back.
“Our local politicians fought to get specialty crops eligible for CFAP,” said Zamora, 55. “If that had not happened, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Raised in Michoacán, Mexico, he came to Los Angeles when he was 20, first working in the restaurant industry and buying rental properties, which he lost in the housing crisis. He moved to Watsonville and attended Cabrillo College and worked for a fresh-cut flower grower.
When he started farming for himself in 2012, it was just him and his wife working an acre and a half of strawberries, beets, carrots and flowers. As his business grew, nearly all of his product was sold to restaurants, independently owned grocery stores and the school lunch program, with a tiny bit going to farmers markets.
The coronavirus has complicated the day-to-day operation of his business, but he says there’s only so much he can do.
“Initially we were scared because we didn’t know how it was going to pan out, we stayed as a family, as a pod,” Zamora said. “But anyone who thinks we can be socially distanced when we work the land is full of baloney. The way it is designed, you are shoulder-to-shoulder.”
“Yes, I am the boss and I lead the operation, but it’s all about how you behave and what you think of humans. When I was a farmworker myself, they made me feel I was worth very little.” — Javier Zamora
In the Salinas Valley, one in five households relies on jobs in the agricultural sector. For Zamora and his wife, strawberries were a significant source of their income this spring, most of them purchased by restaurants and schools.
“The school district sent me a letter that they weren’t going to be buying any when schools shut down,” he said. “I started selling them to a processor for like a tenth of what I usually sell them for. The local news came out and they saw a zillion strawberries, so a few families got together and started ordering every week from me. That helped a lot.”
There are about 2 million operating farms in the United States. In 1935, that number was nearly 7 million. And still, the productivity of crop farms in the American heartland region increased 64 percent between 1982 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The future of farming is filled with the promises of artificial intelligence, robotics and gene-edited crops more effective at fighting disease and pests.
Small specialty crop farmers and ranchers lack much of the federal safety net that has developed to support commodity farmers through natural disasters, poor planting years, trade wars and low commodity prices. The pandemic has left many of them similarly underserved by relief efforts and assistance.
And yet, small farmers and ranchers have shown resilience, bending but not breaking in the face of supply-chain bottlenecks and collapsed revenue streams. When coronavirus outbreaks shut down some of the country’s largest meat processing facilities, leaving grocery store shelves sparse, independent ranchers and butchers forged new direct-to-consumer business models. Fruit and vegetable growers, many of them sole proprietors or small family ventures, pivoted similarly to find viable new markets. Their story is about a perilous kind of entrepreneurship that depends upon soil, sun and improvised solutions.