From livestock auctions to production of baking soda, staples of the agriculture and food-supply industries in western Colorado will continue to operate unimpeded by an order issued by Gov. Jared Polis Sunday to employers to cut their in-person workforces at least in half as a response to the COVID-19 crisis.
That order includes exemptions for food and agriculture infrastructure and supply chains, such as farming, food processing and manufacturing, commodity sales, and farm and produce stands.
Kathryn Bedell, a local rancher and member of the Colorado Agricultural Commission, said some people have been worried about sale barns being able to operate, but they are exempt and won’t run into problems under the Polis order.
The exemption applies to such local sale operations as Loma Livestock and the Delta Sales Yard. A Loma Livestock representative wasn’t available for comment Monday. Holly Varner, who along with her husband Dan owns Delta Sales Yard, said being able to continue operating is important, as a good portion of the livestock sold there ends up being slaughtered and entering the food supply chain as ground beef in grocery stores in seven to 10 days.
“That’s pretty critical at a time like this when the grocery stores are empty that we keep up that supply,” Varner said.
Still, Delta Sales Yard is doing what it can to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Starting with its sale last week it began limiting access to the sales arena to active buyers, meaning spectators weren’t allowed. Varner said the auctions tend to be social gatherings as people come to see neighbors and what the calf prices are for the week. But Delta Sales Yard is taking steps such as asking people to leave their children at home, and consigners to drop off livestock and go home rather than sticking around for the sale.
It also canceled a recent horse sale that wasn’t critical. But Varner said this is an important time of year for bull sales to happen, as the bulls are needed now to breed cows. She said a lot of people in local agriculture also rely on being able to sell some calves as they prepare for activities such as planting hay.
“They need to have this income coming in and it’s really scaring people,” she said of the uncertainty that has surrounded livestock sales.
Bedell said sales barns provide the means for a person to sell a cow and pay their bills for the month. “We don’t want those to close down,” she said.
Varner thinks it’s important to keep the agriculture industry operating as much as possible, while being cautious to limit the exposure to COVID-19.
“We need to be wise but we don’t need to panic,” she said.
Another local company exempted under the Polis order is Natural Soda, which solution-mines sodium bicarbonate from deep underground southwest of Meeker and ships products far and wide from a location in the Rifle area. These products include baking soda for food production, and sodium bicarbonate used in animal feed, in manufacturing of paper products that notably include toilet paper, and in cleaning and consumer products such as soaps and toothpaste.
“We’re doing everything we can to continue to fulfill that role in the food chain,” said Kirk Daehling, Natural Soda’s president.
According to the company, based on a directive from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Natural Soda’s operations are essential services, its workers are essential critical infrastructure workers during the pandemic response, and it has a responsibility to main its normal work schedule.
Daehling said Natural Soda employs 74 people. He said a handful of those people are working at home or alternating days at home and work, but most need to work at their job sites.
Another company also produces sodium bicarbonate products locally — Solvay, which processes soda ash from Wyoming at a plant outside Parachute.
Bedell said a lot of small farms in the area have wholesale contracts with restaurants, and have lost sales as those restaurants have lost business due to the pandemic.
She encouraged people to support community-supported agriculture initiatives, and local farmers markets to the degree that local communities allow them to be held this year, as ways of helping agricultural producers weather the COVID-19 storm.