PERRY, Box Elder County — The coronavirus is turning many of the nation’s agricultural producers into insomniacs.

They are losing sleep over worries that they won’t get their migrant workers back in the fields, farms or orchards.

The hours of darkness stretch on over the grim reality that the biggest market for their products — the food service industry — is in lockdown, and even when it comes back, which no one knows when that will happen, the damage will have been done.

That market of shuttered schools, restaurants banned from in-house dining, university cafeterias, cruise ships, hotels and more makes up 42% of U.S. food demand, while exports — also banned — comprise around 25%.

“There is no way in heck to make this up fast,” said Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau. “The pure reality is we are going to lose farmers, those farmers who are not in the position to weather this storm. ... That is what keeps me up at night. It is driving me crazy. I cannot sleep.”

In states around the country, dairy operators are dumping their milk — including in Utah.

“We are seeing the milk go to the ground because there is nowhere else for the milk to go,” Gibson said. “We are seeing that with beef, lamb, poultry and fresh vegetables being harvested in California.”

When the coronavirus first hit, there was a rush on stores to buy products. Now stores are limiting purchases to keep items on the shelves, which is good to prevent hoarding but it is further choking producers.

Gibson, a dairy farm operator, has already taken a $270,000 hit to his business, and even with demand diminished so drastically, the cows have to continue to be milked and cared for.

“I am not encouraged,” he said, “but farmers and ranchers are not quitters.”

The problem is a matter of economics. It costs money to have the raw milk processed, processors don’t need as much to meet supply, and the cost of freight remains the same.

“What they are trying to do is lose less money,” Gibson said, applying a tourniquet now to try to stay in business when — or if — the agricultural economy rebounds.

In mid-March, the U.S. State Department shut down new applications for foreign migrant workers to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The Utah Farm Bureau estimates the state will get 85% to 95% of its migrant labor force, but it remains a worry and family members in some operations are taking the place of migrant labor.

“We had a hot minute where we were not getting any word,” said Jordan Riley, who with his brother and father operates Riley Orchards in Perry, Box Elder County.

“Early on there was not enough clarification and I know some people were losing sleep over not being able to get workers in,” Riley said. “I figured the federal government didn’t want a food crisis as well so it would get worked out.”

The operation has nine migrant workers, including a foreman, and a couple of local workers who are in the midst of the pruning season.

Workers are following proper spacing guidelines and the layout of the orchard fosters that practice. The rows of trees are spaced 18 feet apart, and the operation is trying to limit trips into town for the workers.

It is similar in Utah County, where Cherry Hill Farms in Santaquin is segregating its migrant workforce into “family” units and prohibiting those family units from interacting.

Curtis Rowley, one of six brothers and a couple of nephews who own the operation, said the first group of workers came into the country pretty easily, while the second wave of workers were coming in just as the U.S. border was closing down.

“The only ones that will be able to get through are the ones who don’t have to have an interview. When they get to the Americana consulate, they look at their record and history. I don’t know what flags or doesn’t flag them,” Rowley said.

The operation monitors the workers daily and also has a quarantine facility set up in case someone does get sick.

“We are trying to stay on top of it like everybody else to be prepared and make sure everybody is taken care of,” he said.

Rowley said workers do have to purchase groceries, so he’s advised them to buy some extra food for emergencies.

“We told them to plan ahead for at least a week and we have done the same,” he said. “We also have some food on hand that we could give them at some point. It is trying to take care of our extended family because they are part of family here.”

The workers, he added, are taking precautions, but COVID-19 isn’t what has them worried.

“They are more worried about the drug dealers where they live than the coronavirus,” he said. “They are more worried about the drug dealers taking one of their family members and killing someone in the middle of the night than the coronavirus. It puts it in perspective.”

The coronavirus has led to some local high school students, when they are done with their studies, to come help out in the orchards, which are full of a variety of trees that include apple and apricot.

Rowley said the biggest demand for workers will be for the harvest. Whether he can tap that migrant labor remains to be seen.

“We have a number of people we can reach out to who have been here before,” he said. “We hope that whatever happens we get the blessing we need to have to get the fruit.”

Gibson said farmers are getting pushback relying on migrant workers when unemployment among U.S. workers is so high, but the agricultural sector relies on skilled trade that is more complex than most people understand.

“It is a specialized skill and and I am not trying to demean U.S. workers, but I would not want one of my produce workers doing heart surgery and I would not want a heart surgeon picking my produce,” he said. “These people are very skilled, they are very good at it.”

Even though agricultural operations are getting federal assistance, Gibson said it won’t be enough to save some farms, which will be replaced by homes and businesses, further eviscerating the domestic supply of food.

“No matter what they give us, it won’t be enough,” he said. “They are not going to fix this problem.”

Riley, operator of the Perry orchard, said if the coronavirus teaches local consumers anything, he hopes it teaches them the importance of buying local.

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There is not enough fruit being grown in the state — it amount to 2% of the supply — and yet it continues to be exported out of state, he said.

“We are still shipping out of state. We are hoping this scare changes that,” Riley said. “There has not been enough local support so it gets shipped out. We don’t need a semi truck to get fresh fruit out.”

Gibson said he has watched the industry bleed for years. The slow death is not only painful for operators, but ultimately consumers and the ability to be self-reliant when it comes to food supplies.

“I want people to understand the importance of a viable, sustainable food supply when it comes to our state and this nation,” Gibson said. “I cannot overestimate the importance of that.”

While the oil industry is going through its own tectonic impacts with idled wells and workers, that “harvest” of crude will remain in place in hopes of better times, he said.

“When our industry goes away, when we cannot make money, we’re gone. The farms are in houses and will never produce food again. It’s permanent and no one is ever going to pull it back. We need to fight.”