Chicken farmers in the Valley have told the Daily News-Record the time between receiving flocks for them to raise increased, straining already thin margins.
“The position that it’s personally put me in is that we get paid about four times a year, and now my payday, from last payday to my next payday, has approximately grown to another month; but I’m still going to have the same 30-day bills,” said one Valley chicken grower, who declined to have his name published in case it impacted his relationship with the company he grows for.
Another Valley chicken grower, who expressed similar concerns to the Daily News-Record about publishing his identity, said he also saw an increased time between flocks. The Page County farmer had gone from a normal downtime between flocks of around 18 days to nearly 40 days, though it has only happened once so far.
“It definitely hurts,” he said.
The farmer said after raising a flock for nine weeks, it usually takes about another two and a half to receive his settlement check from the poultry company.
“Where, with this flock and being down so long, we’re looking at 15 to 15-and-a-half weeks of down time in between settlement checks,” he said.
The farmer said he was not sure if the next flock would also come on a delay.
“In agriculture, the profit margin is always very slim and the longer you stretch that profit out, the less profit it is,” he said. “It’s just like somebody working and not getting paid for it.”
The Virginia Farm Bureau has heard about some of these extended times between farmers receiving new flocks, according to Tony Banks, a commodity specialist and senior assistant director of the agriculture, development and innovation department for the bureau.
“More time with empty floor space, that’s less income,” Banks said.
He added that the Virginia Farm Bureau has heard of instances of up to 50 days between flocks for Virginia growers.
“I can’t stress enough that what’s happening on individual poultry farms is varying from company to company, and even among the different complexes a company may own,” Banks said. “If you can’t process but so many birds, and demand is down to begin with, it’s going to have a ripple effect back to the poultry growers.”
Other issues facing the poultry growers during the COVID-19 pandemic is the destruction of flocks because they cannot be processed, though Banks said he had not heard of that happening in the commonwealth.
But the impact from the pandemic has not stopped at increasing times between flocks, Banks said.
“We have heard that in some cases birds are being places on farms at lower densities and all this is pretty much being driven by the supply chain demand disruptions,” Banks said.
Some plants are also running below capacity due to the changes in demand for products, as well as because of COVID-19 cases in workforces, said Hobey Bauhan, the president of the Virginia Poultry Federation.
“I think the situation is improving some right now, but over the last several weeks, there have been a lot of people who have not been able to work because of COVID-19,” he said.
Both Bauhan and Banks said they were hopeful that as more production at poultry plants shifts from supplying restaurants and catering, which have seen demand crater, to supplying markets, which have seen demand increase, there could be a reduction in the time between flocks for Valley growers.
Plants running at a lower capacity “translates to fewer birds being grown in the field and that affects producer income, grower income, and that has a negative effect on growers,” Bauhan said.
He said the Virginia Poultry Federation has contacted the state’s federal legislators, including 6th District Congressman Republican Ben Cline and Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, to advocate for direct payments to poultry growers in order to offset losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federation has also sent a letter to Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on the matter of direct payments to growers, according to Bauhan.
Banks also spoke about the poultry trade relationship with China, which had just started to improve at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 after several years of strife.
In November, China lifted its ban on importing American poultry, which had been in place for four years. The USDA forecast the reopening of access to the Chinese poultry market could bring in $1 billion worth of annual sales to the American industry, while national industry groups were even more optimistic.
“We were just beginning to see this turnaround in the beginning of 2020 before COVID-19 hit,” Banks said. “Both the companies and growers were looking for a bright spot here in 2020 with the resumption of trade with China and things on the farm and in the plant got even worse because of the COVID-19 mitigation measures.”
President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in late April to keep meat processing facilities running to ensure food could reach American tables, though numerous COVID-19 cases and outbreaks have been linked to meat processing plants.
“Everyone’s trying to work through a difficult situation,” Banks said.
And the Page County chicken farmer said the increased times between flocks were just another part of the “uncertainty” in agricultural markets.
“We’re all in this thing together so it’s just going to take time to work it out,” he said.