DICKINSON, N.D. — When the coronavirus pandemic hit North Dakota, farmers, ranchers and businesses supporting those professions experienced a maelstrom of events from the packing plants shutting down to ranchers considering arduous decisions to keep their calf crops. But like most southwestern North Dakotans, the COVID-19 tornado is just like any other tempestuous trial and there’s only one thing to do: cowgirl up.
Emily Richard, a Belfield, N.D., black angus rancher, and Circle C Ranch Supply owner Clover Praus of Dickinson, N.D., witnessed the eye of the storm throughout the pandemic and its multiple strikes on agriculture.
Richard noted that the major setback of the coronavirus hitting in March was the backed up market.
“The initial impacts from the coronavirus we have seen on our ranch has been the inability to move our commodities to market. Whether that be from the uncertainty in the markets to the packing plants shutting down or the inability to get certain supplies because of the disruption in the supply chain,” said Richard, who ranches alongside her husband Brandon and father-in-law Byron Richard of Richard Angus Ranch. “Overall, agriculture has had to continue on as best we can. The biggest disruption we have had to face is rethinking what to do with our commodities to adapt to the ever changing and uncertain markets. Many of us have had to keep our calf crop and background as it has not been feasible to sell off the cow like many of us are used to.”
Beef prices have taken a blow, with a lower trend over the past year, Richard continued. When the packing plants shut down, feedlots experienced backed up issues and “the fat cattle inventory” skyrocketed which in turn, reduced prices.
“We are a supply and demand industry so when our supply is up, demand is down. Because of the inability to process finished animals, it sends the markets in a downward spiral. We have seen some rebound lately, but we are still well below where we would like to see the prices,” she noted.
Agriculture is constantly changing, and though the Richard Angus Ranch still has the same foundation in place, the family has had to adapt to the arising challenges the pandemic’s unveiled, Richard said, explaining that they’ve never experienced the shut down of packing plants or the inability to move their commodities to market.
However, like most farmers, Richard cultivated her own way to success by obtaining her North Dakota meat license in May and opening up a mobile retail business, EAT.BETTER.BEEF, where she sells prime black angus meat cuts to local customers, and even to customers in South Dakota.
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“I really feel agriculture is changed forever. There has been a wave moving through our world where the consumer has really become aware of the producer. We finally are getting the spotlight turned on us and people are realizing how important our industry is to the food chain,” Richard said. “When the grocery stores were empty and there was no food on the shelves, it really made the consumer pay attention to us in a positive light. We have been so happy to educate people on our operation, how it works, what we actually do and to the possibility of getting their food right from the ranch. I really think the consumer has changed their mindset and opened up to the opportunities of buying fresh from a local producer.”
Overcoming obstacles such as the coronavirus is just another battle. Reactions from other ranchers is that people are banding together in unity. Even on a good year, farming and ranching is one of the most strenuous, stressful professions out there, Richard said, adding that looking out for one another is how they plow through the seasons of uncertainty.
“Agriculture is a very resilient industry. We are lucky enough to have many different avenues to utilize to try and adapt to the situation. Options such as backgrounding calves ourselves, sending them to a feedlot, putting them up on shares. Some people have even gone to marketing our products directly to consumers right off the ranch,” Richard said.
'Every business is essential'
As an owner of a small business in Dickinson, Praus provides ranchers in the area with livestock supplies from antibiotics, ear tags and pour-ons such as dewormers. When the COVID-19 pandemic slammed Dickinson, Praus noted that traffic simmered in the storefront and sales decreased.
“Months into the pandemic calving season was in full swing and I offered more options on how to help customers with the transition. I offered curbside, drop shipping and in-store shopping,” Praus said. “For me, it was crucial for the doors to remain open. It’s not only my livelihood of ranchers, it was vital they had a source for vaccines and supplies in the community to keep their herds healthy. No matter the situation and how bad it may look we must have faith over fear.”
Keeping the doors open to Circle C Ranch Supply was vital not only for Praus but for ranches and farmers in the area who prefer to shop locally.
“This year has presented many unforeseen challenges for many. My heart went out to small business owners and workers that were considered nonessential. Every business is essential," she said. "From the owner, the workers and the building they work in. It should have been the choice of the people to make that decision for themselves and take precautions. I was able to keep the storefront going and gave the option to the public to protect themselves if they felt the need."
Business and agriculture must march forward, Praus said, adding that she’s also launched a boutique line in her store to accommodate a wide array of shoppers.
“When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic making an impact on my business and ranchers — in my profession and the life of the rancher — we have seen many challenges arise from droughts, years where you can’t find hay or can’t afford to truck it in to a blizzard that wipes out half your cash crop, fluctuating cattle prices and many unforeseen events. When the rancher feels the economic pain or a loss, I’m also losing,” she said, explaining, “For vaccines, you have to order months prior to the season starting. You lose it if it expires or you’re long on product. You lose if the rancher needs to cut corners or sells out. It’s a gambling business no matter how you look at it, for both sides.
“So when I get asked the question with COVID-19 pandemic, I can say many out there have gone through bigger storms and have learned to adapt, overcome and persevere.”
With each season in the agriculture world, a lesson is always learned. Though ranchers and agricultural-based business owners like Praus and Richard have encountered much turbulence from the COVID-19 pandemic, southwest North Dakotans are constantly looking out for one another.
“We couldn't be luckier to live in southwest North Dakota. We have been mostly spared from the drastic life changes that most Americans have had to deal with,” Richard said, adding, “We were constantly reminded of how blessed we are to live in the tight community that we do where we have constant support; we always know there is light at the end of the tunnel.”