This morning before a single ray of sunlight hit the Cherry Research Farm, two workers showed up to milk the cows. In the dark of 4 a.m. their shift began on the farm in Goldsboro.
About 140 dairy cows need milking every day, twice a day – seven days a week, 365 days a year. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed that.
“It’s actually 366 days this year because it’s a leap year,” said Johnnie Howard.
As the superintendent of the research station, Howard is astutely aware of how every day matters and how not a single day can be skipped. Along with the safety of workers, care of the livestock on the station is a top priority. It’s not just essential. It’s vital. It’s mandatory. Required. No matter the word, it must be done – no exceptions.
“Right now, except no visitors on station, we’re taking care of our animals, we’re getting crops in fields, preparing fields and preparing for projects,” Howard said.
It’s a similar scenario at the other 17 research stations across the state. While workers are being more careful to keep distance from each other, they are carrying on almost as normal. It’s a normality that carries on because of necessity.
“The time to plant is now,” said Phillip Winslow, the superintendent of the Caswell Research Farm in Kinston.
Winslow said in order to have corn for livestock feed in the fall, the corn has to be planted on time this spring. He’s been overseeing the planting of about 400 acres of corn at Caswell along with about 100 more acres of corn across town at the Lower Coastal Plain Tobacco Research Station. It’s just one of the things going on at the stations right now, and the dedication to stay on track matches farmers across North Carolina.
“I’m sure every farmer who has the opportunity to plant for 2020, they’re going to be doing everything they can to be getting their crops planted,” Winslow said.
At the Cherry farm, in addition to the twice daily cow milking, there are also about 80 beef cattle and about 20 swine to care for. Right now the dairy and beef cattle also have several calves, which adds to the total head count. Of course, they all have to be fed. Occasionally, the beef cattle have to be move to a new grazing area. A worker has to lay eyes on every single animal every day for a health check.
There’s always something, Howard said. It’s very labor intensive, but as always, it must be done no matter what’s happening elsewhere. Even when floods brought water to parts of the station after hurricanes, workers used boats to tend to the animals that were on high ground.
Even in a worst-case scenario where too many employees got sick and needed to stay home, Howard would make sure the animals were taken care of.
“We’re going to take care of our animals, even if we had to pull workers from other stations,” Howard said. “We support each other.”
Fortunately, Howard hasn’t even come close to needing back-up support. In fact, with normal staffing maintained, it’s not just the livestock care that continues right now. At about 2,000 acres, there’s a lot of crop production on the Cherry farm too.
“Everybody seems to appreciate being able to still come to work. They feel like they’d be getting behind,” Howard said. “They’re farmers at heart. It’s springtime, and it’s time to go to the field and get things done.”
While workers on research stations continue to get things done during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re not living in a bubble. Howard said the workers obviously still have lives away from the station, so the coronavirus is affecting them away from work.
“A lot of us are dealing with everything everyone else is (off the station),” Howard said.
In all, there are 23 full-time and five part-time employees at Cherry. They and their families are also adjusting to disruptions in their personal lives such as figuring out childcare when schools and daycares aren’t operating as normal.
Nonetheless, they’re managing the uncertainties and showing up to work every day. Howard hopes that by making sure workers take a few extra precautions, they’ll continue to carry out the mission of the research stations.
“Agriculture is a critical thing in our state, and what we do on the research stations supports it at the grass route,” he said.
Just as that work began today, it will begin tomorrow – even before the sun comes up.