MARION — Harvest season has arrived in Northern Michigan, and while farmers worry about what the future months and years have in store for them, many are counting their blessings they've made it this far.
The beginning of 2020 was marked by massive drops in commodity prices as a result of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around here, those in the dairy industry were especially affected by market turbulence in the first few months after the virus reached the states.
"2020 was supposed to be a recovery year," said Marion farmer Bob Lee, who added that many experts posited that after several years of depressed dairy prices, this year was looking to be profitable ... at least that was the prediction until COVID-19 happened.
"It's now very unpredictable going forward," Lee said. "You don't know what production or consumption is going to be."
Lee said they've been able to make it through the worst of the market crash by taking advantage of the federal assistance that was allocated to farms and small businesses.
"We're pretty comfortable right now," Lee said. "But if it wasn't for the COVID relief, we'd be hurting."
Fellow Osceola County farmer Jerry Lindquist said after the initial collapse of the dairy market in the spring corresponding to the closure of restaurants and schools, prices rebounded for a time as people — many of whom started working and eating more of their meals at home — spent more money on milk products than they previously had.
That lasted about three months and now Lindquist said the market seems to trending downward again.
"Profitability has been dropping," Lindquist said. "We needed about three years (of more profitable prices) to make up for the five years (of low profitability) we've just gone through. We got three months instead."
Lindquist said it remains to be seen what sort of lingering effects COVID-19 will have on society, including how it will alter long-term consumption patterns of products like milk and cheese.
"It's like a new frontier," Lindquist said. "You don't know what tomorrow brings."
Amy Martin, operator of Gringrich Meadows Dairy in LeRoy, said the months after COVID reached Michigan saw dairy prices drop $4-5 per 100-weight below break-even, then spike up to the level of profitability during the summer.
"The milk market was a roller coaster," Martin said. "You had no clue from day to day what it was going to do."
Echoing the observations made by Lindquist, Martin said prices appear to be moderating and she believes based on everything she's heard that they will hover around break-even into the foreseeable future.
Martin said the coronavirus relief assistance was very important for them during the worst months of the pandemic (so far).
"It gave us enough money to pay the bills and our employees," Martin said. "But now that's gone. How are farms going to survive during the next six months without that assistance?"
Like Lindquist, Martin also wonders if people will permanently change their eating habits as a result of staying home more. She said one of the reasons profitability increased in the summer was that people were spending money on milk and eating cereal as a family rather than scarfing down a quick Pop-Tart before heading to work.
"I hope they continue eating milk and cereal," Martin said.
While complex market dynamics remain fickle, one thing that farmers are pretty confident about right now is how well their crops did this year.
Lee, Lindquist and Martin all said that extended periods of dryness negatively affected their hay yields but overall, it was a decent year.
Martin said they're about 30% off on their normal yields of hay but if rains and warmth persist, they may be able to make up some of that loss with a fourth cutting.
In all likelihood, however, Martin said they'll have to buy supplemental feed for their cattle. Last year, they spent around $10,000 a month on supplements. While Martin said she doesn't expect they'll spend as much this year, it will still be a decent-sized chunk.
Fortunately for those who plant corn, this year turned out to be much better than last year, which was plagued by excessive moisture that delayed the planting season and severely affected the eventual harvest.
Lindquist said many farmers may rely heavily this year on their corn silage to offset the losses they experienced in hay yields. Others that don't grow corn, however, could be be forced to spend a lot of money on feed to get their animals through winter.