Pandemic hurting ranchers in southwest Wyoming

EVANSTON — Sheep ranchers are the earliest agricultural victims in Uinta County to feel the economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The cattle industry and other types of agriculture will soon join them in having to adjust to the wide-spread economic fallout from the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. 

Cole Ehmke of the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics at the University of Wyoming said in a press release that the implications for agriculture due to the coronavirus include falling commodity prices, a manpower shortage, trucking of needed supplies and illnesses of workers at processing facilities — all of which could cause a backlog of animals at ranches or feedlots. 

He said that even spring branding social events may have to change. 

Uinta County rancher Vance Broadbent said the wool market is not trading at all, and there is still wool in storage from last year. He said he will still shear his sheep, and he’s in the process of trying to find a local building to store it in until the market opens up again. 

“The wool market was hurt with the China trade closing,” Broadbent said. “And now with the pandemic and the stock market and all that is happening, there just isn’t any market. Plus, we usually hire up to 10 migrant shearers every spring, and most left for the winter and now can’t get back.” 

At the Broadbent ranch, migrant workers with the H2A classification work visa usually come from Peru — which is now closed — and others come from Mexico. 

Shearing usually starts in early April, with lambing in May, and Broadbent said he has applied for two workers from Mexico to come help and he’s hoping they can arrive soon. 

Broadbent said the mass run on groceries has been problematic.

In the past, he would put in an order with the grocery stores and pickup once a month, but since the pandemic began, he was only able to get enough food for his herders to last a couple of weeks. 

“On a larger scale, the meat market prices have been declining because consumption is going down with all of the shut-downs of restaurants. Our biggest market for lamb has been the restaurant industry. Also, the unknown about how long this pandemic will last has people panicking and they self-isolate and aren’t shopping as much,” Broadbent said. 

At the Guild Ranch near Evanston, Earl and Jody Guild run only cattle. Jody Guild said they got out of the sheep business some years ago because they were losing too many lambs. 

“We have seen the cattle prices going down with the food establishments closing,” Jody Guild said. “We usually sell our yearlings in the fall and hope the market is back up again by then. Considering the grocery shortage problem, we are LDS and have food storage for 20 years. Only concern might be toilet paper and fresh produce.” 

Crystal Fearn, daughter-in-law of Brad “Jonesy” Fearn, who owns Painter Ranch, told the Herald they have already sold their calves for the year. She said they sell in January, so the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t really hurt their business at this time. 

She said they put their bulls in with the heifers later in the spring so they calf later and sell them the rest of the year. 

Fearn said she personally follows the market closely until they are ready to sell their calves. When they sold in January, the market was still up. 

Robin Whitmore of Bear River has a small sheep operation with two rams and 30 breeding ewes. She said she currently has 35 lambs. She raises lambs for FAA and 4-H students. They usually sell all of the lambs in mid-April for the students’ projects.

“Usually by this time, we have most of the lambs sold off the property but currently, we have sold none. People are afraid to come out to look at the lambs and are afraid to travel,” Whitmore said. “Also, I think people are low on money due to layoffs, and they don’t know if there will even be a county fair this year. Some of the families who usually buy from me are from other communities and don’t want to travel due to the coronavirus. This past weekend, there were four families who had planned to come and only two of them showed up.” 

The temporary inability to export wool hasn’t affected her operation, she said. 

“When we shear, I don’t have enough wool to market it so I just give it to local weavers,” Whitmore said. 

Lyman rancher Carl Larson has 7,000 head of sheep that roam over 160-plus acres. He said since his ranch doesn’t sell the lambs until the fall, he is not sure how much of an effect the COVID-19 pandemic will have on prices. 

Larson keeps three of his documented workers on through the winter, but will need five more for the summer, when he usually hires a total of eight. He said he isn’t worried yet about the shearing and hopes that the workers can get their paperwork completed over the phone in order to come work. 

Larson said he realizes the market for wool is down due to the China trade deal and the virus. 

“Now as far as grocery shopping for my three herders goes,” Larson said, “it’s been tough. I usually go to Benedict’s once a week and get three shopping carts full of supplies — one for each of them. When I went last week, I put three packages of tortillas in each cart and Jim Benedict said they were limiting one package per customer. But he ended up letting me have one for each cart. So, instead of nine packages, I got three total.” 

Larson said the store was out of pinto beans, and Benedicts said they would order more. When he went back the next week, there were only gallon-sized cans of pinto beans available. He said he bought three gallons, and then purchased plastic containers for his herders to separate the beans. 

Larson remains optimistic that the economy will be able to recover. For now, he said he feels fortunate to live on a ranch and out of the coronavirus hotbeds.