In rural Kansas, agriculture and meat processing continue despite COVID-19

By Jonathan Shorman

Tribune News Service

LAWRENCE — Only eight souls live on the square-mile section where Jeff Hatfield farms south of Wichita: him, his wife, daughter, son-in-law, three grandchildren and a neighbor.

The coronavirus pandemic still managed to find him.

Not, thankfully, in the form of sickness. For him, the virus’s toll is the damage to his business.

“It’s hurt it tremendously,” he said on a recent morning phone call while driving a tractor back from feeding his 120 head of cattle on the farm near Belle Plaine.

Beef prices are down. Grain prices, too.

“Agriculture definitely hasn’t been spared anything from our economy being down,” Hatfield said. “It’s been hit quite drastically.”

In the early weeks of the outbreak, it appeared as if rural areas might ride out the pandemic relatively unscathed. Officially, many of the state’s rural counties still show no or very few cases.

But the growing realization is that not even the farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers who feed America will escape the economic trauma sweeping the country.

Still, they’re hopeful the critical nature of food production will help them through the worst of it.

Nearly 50 of Kansas’s 105 counties still have no confirmed cases more than a month after the state’s first case. These counties are largely rural and dominated by agriculture.

Interviews with more than a dozen Kansas farmers, ranchers, health officials and community leaders show how for many in the state’s rural areas, work continues unabated even as urban areas hunker down.

While those living in rural Kansas say they’re taking precautions to limit the spread of the deadly virus, the essential work of agriculture must go on despite the risk.

In food processing, the risks for workers are especially acute. An outbreak in a packed plant could cause painful disruptions and stretch an already strained rural health-care system.

Thousands of people continue to process cattle every day at the Tyson Foods plant at Holcomb near Garden City. An outbreak would represent a nightmare scenario — rapidly spreading the contagion while disrupting a plant that processes approximately 5 percent of all American beef on any given day.

The company operates other plants in Kansas and Missouri as well.

Joe Gonzales, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, knows several people who work at the plant.

“They’re worried that some people might have it and aren’t saying nothing or they don’t have a temperature — you never know,” he said.

Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston declined to say whether anyone at the Holcomb plant has tested positive. Workers at all facilities — including Holcomb — have their temperature taken before they enter plants, she said.

The company is working to secure face coverings, and plants have increased the distance between workers, she said.

Additionally, the time between shifts has been lengthened to reduce worker interaction, and outdoor seating has been provided to give employees more space during breaks.

“If there is a confirmed case at one of our locations, as part of our protocol and in collaboration with health officials, we notify anyone who has been in close contact with the person and instruct them to go home and self-quarantine,” Croston said in an email. “We also inform team members who have not been exposed and provide information to our supervisors so they can help answer questions.”

Gov. Laura Kelly said her administration has been in touch with both Tyson and Cargill, which process beef in Dodge City. Both companies have implemented procedures to make plants safer while maintaining production.

“I talked with the CEO of Tyson the other day, and they are having half the number of people come in to the facility at any given time, so they’re essentially doing two shifts,” Kelly said Friday at a news conference.

Outbreaks have already struck meat plants throughout the country, and some employees have died. More than 80 workers at a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota have tested positive, forcing the facility to temporarily close.

Workers have tested positive at plants in Iowa, Georgia and other states. A Tyson plant in Iowa was also closed.

Kansas already got a taste of what a large-scale disruption in a meat plant would look like when a fire last fall temporarily shuttered Tyson at Holcomb. The event affected beef prices nationally and sent ranchers scrambling to find other places to send their cattle.

The United States has very little slack in its cattle processing capacity, said Matt Teagarden, CEO of the Kansas Livestock Association. Any disruption quickly filters down to farmers and ranchers, who are even now sending cattle to auctions every day.

“Those cattle that should have been harvested this week don’t get harvested until next week. Next week’s cattle gets delayed, so you just push cattle out, so that has a downward effect on the cattle market,” Teagarden said. “So it makes this situation even worse from a cattle producer perspective.”

Hatfield’s up against a ticking clock. He’s hoping his grass greens up before he runs out of feed for his cattle and is forced to begin selling.

He wants to take some of his older cattle to market, “but with the market being the way it is, I’m trying to hold off on that as long as I can.”

Forty-one U.S. senators — including Jerry Moran of Kansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — last week sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking him to provide relief to farmers. They wrote that cattle producers last week experienced “excessive price losses” creating “cash flow challenges as spring planting season quickly approaches.”

President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday that he had instructed Perdue to expedite help for farmers.

“I expect Secretary Purdue to use all of the funds and authorities at his disposal to make sure that our food supply is stable, strong and safe,” Trump tweeted without elaborating.

While rural Kansas is expected to take a beating economically, the losses will likely end up smaller than in urban areas.

Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, said employment could fall by 27 percent in Kansas, and 35 percent in Wichita.

But the decline is projected at less than 20 percent in rural areas.

“I think the rest of the state is going to fare much better than the bigger urban areas,” Hill said.

Lona DuVall, president and CEO of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., which encompasses Garden City, said the county has a production-based economy centered not only on food but also on trucking and that much of the business that occurs is “essential.” That’s helping the county withstand the economic pressure.

“What we maybe sometimes think of as an urban-rural divide is actually more of a difference between a production economy and a service economy,” DuVall said.

Eighty-eight people filed unemployment claims in Finney County during the week ending April 4. While the number is dozens more than most western counties, it’s still a far cry from urban areas where thousands are being laid off and furloughed.

In Greeley County, bordering Colorado, not a single new unemployment claim was filed between March 29 and April 4. In neighboring Wallace County, just one claim was filed. Both counties have no reported cases of coronavirus.

Aften Gardner, an administrator for the Wallace County Health Department, said the county has only had to shut down its salon. Most of the businesses in town center on agriculture — meaning they’re essential under Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide stay-at-home order.

“It’s kind of different for us,” Gardner said. “We’re kind of rural and ag-based.”

People have been avoiding going out, Gardner said, particularly those who are high-risk for COVID-19. Businesses have switched to curbside and delivery methods.

The county hasn’t had a confirmed case of the new coronavirus yet. Gardner said if it enters the county, officials would roll out more restrictions, like roping off playgrounds.

Kansas Rep. Russ Jennings represents a swath of western Kansas extending from Garden City to the Colorado border. He said his impression is people are taking the stay-at-home order seriously.

The Lakin Republican said a local parts store was taking orders by phone.

“They’re basically met at the door and handed their stuff; they’re not even letting people inside the building,” he said.

Despite few confirmed cases, Jennings suggested rural areas are still taking the threat of the virus seriously in part because small community hospitals are unlikely to have equipment found in larger hospitals in places like Garden City.

If you have to be hospitalized, you’re likely going somewhere away from your hometown, Jennings said. And, he says, residents in the communities he represents tend to be older, and more at risk if they catch the virus.

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a physician, said some rural hospitals in Kansas have already experienced an overflow of patients.

“You’re going to have little tiny hot spots, but because it’s 25 or 100 people at a time, it doesn’t make the front page,” Colyer said. “But believe me, it’s devastating for these communities. Ten percent of the community could be affected and sick at the same time.”

John McRae, president of Iola Industries in Allen County, said he hasn’t been able to visit his grandchildren in Olathe and Des Moines because of the pandemic.

Allen County, in eastern Kansas, still has no confirmed cases, but residents are taking precautions. McRae said last month he and his associates had debated whether to travel to Topeka for a meeting. They didn’t end up going.

“Things happen so fast,” McRae said.

Still, social distancing Hatfield, the Belle Plaine farmer, said people in his area aren’t jumping in pickup trucks together or visiting each other. Everyone is trying to be more conscientious of friends, family and neighbors, he said.

He and his wife recently ordered groceries online for the first time. The local co-op has been keeping everyone out of the office. The restaurants are closed when he drives through town.

“The interaction with everybody that we’re just so used to having is just not there,” Hatfield said.

But for now, all he can do is plant corn and feed his cattle.

“My cattle, they’re just waiting like everybody else,” he said. “They’d like to see it warm up and the grass green up a little better.”

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