Texas agribusiness weathers challenges from COVID-19 pandemic

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LORENZO, Texas (Nexstar) — Agriculture was essential before the pandemic, but now in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Texans who make up that essential industry have had to evolve operations to continue to deliver.

A look around Hurst Farm Supply quickly reveals a changing dynamic: supply shelves fully-stocked but fewer customers on the floor.

The employees at the Crosby County store, about a 30-minute drive east of Lubbock, are adapting to regular wipe-downs of counters, equipment and merchandise.

Joe Hurst, the owner, said his seven locations around West Texas have offered curbside service and his technicians will often head out into the field to fix tractors.

“When we go out to the country or working on a customer’s equipment in the back we spray everything down so that we can make sure our technicians are operating in a safe environment,” Hurst said.

“We make sure that all of our employees are not working at each other stations, that they only work at their station, that they’re not using other people’s equipment or other people’s tools,” Hurst said.

His staff meetings have gone virtual, and the bulk of his sales are now done over the phone or online. He’s beefing up his social media presence.

It’s tough for an industry that relies on handshakes and community coffee pots.

“In about 10 minutes’ time we had about 13 hands touch our coffee pots so I said ‘That can’t be good if we’re supposed to be washing our hands,’” Hurst said.

The state and federal governments have stepped in to offer assistance to the agriculture community.

The Texas Department of Agriculture launched a program Wednesday to connect consumers directly with local agriculture producers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will start accepting applications next week for direct payments through the new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program for farmers and ranchers who’ve suffered during the pandemic.

“It’s very trying times,” Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening said during a virtual interview from his Wilson County ranch. He said the pandemic affected producers of perishable commodities like produce and livestock the hardest, adding that growers of sorghum and cotton have been hit by prices being driven down.

“For some folks, it’s going to be enough to get to get this crop in to maybe take care of this calf crop,” Boening said. “But for other folks who maybe don’t have quite as much equity and may be younger, more beginning farmers, it still could be a tough road,” he explained.

Though the pandemic has some growers bumping new equipment further down on the priority list, planting season happens regardless of the pandemic, so farmers rely on Hurst.

“We’ve been in business since 1955, we know our customers, we have relationships with our customers, they know we’re doing everything we can to make it safer for them,” he shared.

Hurst, and others like him, will be ready for those customers with hand sanitizer ready.

“Trying to provide the best service parts, availability and equipment that they could get and we do feel that responsibility,” Hurst explained.

“My employees are focused on making the best experience for that customer out there and that’s what we do and that’s what we have to do to keep this ball rolling,” Hurst said.

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