SALT LAKE CITY — The novel coronavirus and Utah’s magnitude 5.7 earthquake are prompting residents to flock to farm and ranching stores across the state, with this season’s crop of chicks practically flying out the door.
The Ogden Intermountain Farmers Association store sold 1,000 chicks in one day, and West Haven’s Dallas Green Farm and Home sold 350 chicks during its “Chick Days” event last weekend.
Katy Cox and her family have been raising chickens the last four years as a hobby and she was stunned to discover the Riverton IFA store was out of chicks when she went to replenish her flock.
When more chicks arrived at the store, Cox went to pick out the additions, learning there was a six-chick per family limit. Although she only intended to get four, she bought three Americanas and three black australorps.
“We were not panic buying but there was a big sign that said six chicks per family and it was all roped off,” Cox said. “I asked the woman at the store if people were hoarding chicks and she told me you would not believe it. You have to come right when they open and put your name on a list.”
Cox said it surprised her.
“I think there is kind of a herd mentality. If one person does it then everyone does it ... it is definitely different times. People have never gone through anything like this. There was how life looked before COVID-19 and then life after COVID-19.”
Cox said she worries people are buying the cute chicks but don’t realize the kind care they require. If they survive, they turn into mature chickens that also require a lot of maintenance.
“They grow up and become stinky and gross,” she said. “There may be a day when we have wild chickens all over Riverton.”
It usually takes six months before the chicks mature enough to start laying eggs.
When the rush happened at Dallas Green, one employee wryly commented on the run, saying he wasn’t sure why it was happening. “It’s not like they can eat them.”
Braden Smith, the store’s manager, said they were supposed to have received 250 chicks for Chick Days but got 100 more by accident.
“They shipped us an extra box with live birds and we gladly accepted it.”
On March 18, the day of the earthquake, Smith said there was a long line of people waiting for propane.
“We almost sold through our tank. There is no issue with the supply of propane,” Smith said.
He received another shipment of 30 chicks Friday and was going to limit chicks for purchasers.
“They will normally last all week,” he said, adding he was not going to let someone buy all of them.
His store is also selling more chicken feed, and when one product runs out, people move onto the next in the supply chain.
He said the panic-buying creates a bullwhip effect that makes it harder for suppliers to keep up. The supply, he said, is there, it just takes time to get to the store.
“I think there is a couple of things going on,” Smith said. “People want to feel like they have control in a situation where you really don’t have control.”
Jill Singleton, IFA’s category manager for poultry and rabbits, said there has been intense purchasing of chicks across the company’s chain of stores, particularly along the Wasatch Front.
“We sold more in three hours in the Ogden store than we would on our biggest Saturday,” Singleton said.
She, like Cox, expressed concern that some chicks maybe going to novice owners who don’t know the work required to care for the animals.
Instructions on IFA chick boxes will walk the owners through the requirements — such as keeping the young birds at a temperature between 90 and 95 degrees the first week of their life.
“Getting chicks is a big commitment,” she said. “Education is a big piece of what we do at IFA. Everyone should read the chick boxes.”
Chicks may be in short supply because orders from hatcheries are placed in December by companies like IFA and Dallas Green. December was well before the coronavirus was a public health issue and well before the pandemic.
Smith said it will probably be a couple months before orders for extra chicks beyond routine shipments are a reality.
Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau, said the pandemic is instilling a big question mark for the agricultural industry and how it might shift and adapt.
As an example, 42% of all dairy products in the United States go to the food service sector such as restaurants and hotels — where demand has dropped off significantly. Another 25% goes to exports, which have also plunged.
On the flip side, demand is up in grocery stores, which are having a hard time keeping products on the shelves.
“It is not that it is not available, it is just being sold in a different channel,” Gibson said.
Gibson, a dairy farm operator, said what remains unknown is how long the pandemic lasts and if the agricultural sector can shift enough to adjust to the change in supply channels.
“What we will have to see is if domestic demand at the grocery stores is enough to settle out what used to through food service,” he said.
The same tectonic effects are happening with the beef market, Gibson said.
Hamburger sales are up at drive-thru restaurants, but premium cuts of beef were primarily destined for hotels and restaurants.
“There are not many people who order a ribeye steak at a drive-thru so the premium cuts of beef are struggling,” Gibson said.
As for Utah’s farmers and ranchers, Gibson assured residents they should not worry the coronavirus is affecting production. “I can say there is no concern about your food security. We are planting crops right now ... I don’t know of one producer that is affected or has changed their plans for the growing season. ... That is our job.”
Back at Dallas Green, however, Smith noted there has also been a run on garden seed.
He said even though it is just the end of March, he has sold 96% of the seeds he sold all last year.
“There’s been a huge increase. We usually keep our seeds out to June or July,” Smith said.
The rush on products has been challenging to Smith as manager of the store and trying to juggle inventory.
“I like to think I have a pretty good crystal ball for the store, but this year has been keeping me up at night,” he said. “I think this is going to go on for at least a couple months.”
He added that his business is thriving and creating “good” problems and mixed emotions.
“I honestly have felt guilty about selling so much stuff because of the pandemic. I don’t want to profit off of other people’s misfortune, but what we do is important to people in the area.”