Planning for a Pandemic

As Farms Prepare for COVID-19, Contingency Planning Takes on New Urgency

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
Edwards County, Kansas, farmer Bill Roenbaugh has contingency plans prepared for a variety of circumstances, but preparing for potato harvest amid a global pandemic may be one of the most challenging. (Photo courtesy of Katie Schwalb)

MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. (DTN) -- Glen Newcomer's accident in 2015 couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time. It was the night before his annual customer appreciation dinner and soybean harvest was just about to get rolling.

Thanks to a plan his wife, son and advisory board worked out ahead of time, everyone knew what to do.

"The work got done, and we didn't have to rely on friends or neighbors, even though I know there were some of them that wanted to help," the Bryan, Ohio, farmer told DTN. The accident "made me much more aware of the importance of having a contingency plan or having a plan in case something unexpected or tragic happens. We always read about the tragedies that happen unexpectedly, but many times there are health issues that come up, and the work still has to be done on a seasonal or timely basis."

A recent survey conducted by DTN and data analytics company Farm Market iD found that 69% of farmers don't have a plan if they were to fall ill with the COVID-19 virus, which has sickened more than 1.5 million people around the globe and killed more than 90,000, as of April 9.

You can find more details on the survey here:…

"That's a little bit of a frightening story," said Bill Roenbaugh, who raises row crops, potatoes and cattle in Edwards County, Kansas, referring to the number of unprepared farmers. "I don't think agriculture is going to be impacted at the level that some of the cities are, but if there is a wildcard in the marketplace that might be it."

Like Newcomer, Roenbaugh views contingency planning as an important part of how the farm manages risk. While the conversation over the past two months has revolved around protecting all of the family and farm employees' health, he said they have contingency plans for financial issues, crop failures or catastrophic risks to their cattle.

"It's like buying insurance. Contingency plans cost money," he said, adding that sometimes the contingency plan takes the form of insurance; sometimes it's in how the business is structured; and sometimes it means having more people on staff. "All of those things add up to make a business a little less efficient, but our philosophy has always been to accept a lower level of profitability to minimize risk."


The Roenbaughs began preparing for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. toward the end of January. Roenbaugh's daughter, Katie Schwalb, had spent time in Beijing while in law school and was concerned the Chinese government wasn't telling the full story.

"I sent Dad a text at the end of January with a picture of my pandemic supplies," she said. She also sent it to her brother, Christopher, who is her father's business partner and serves on the local hospital board. "It didn't take very long for everybody to start coming together to make these plans."

They started by looking at the needs of their family, their employees and then their business. By starting early, preparing the pantry for the family and the employees was fairly simple. They bought a few industrial N95 masks and veterinary surgical gloves for their cattle operation, which they hope will last a year.

"We started asking employees to think about it the same way we were, to think about what their contingency plans were. It was almost a daily discussion," Roenbaugh said.

Christopher encouraged Schwalb, her husband and three children to move to the farm for a while if the number of infections in Boulder, Colorado, where they live, grew to the point where the government would issue a stay-at-home order.

By planning far enough in advance, the Schwalb family was able to do a 14-day, no-contact quarantine to make sure they didn't bring the virus with them. It was an extra measure to protect her parents, who are both in their 60s and at higher risk.

The families have had extensive conversations about what would happen if members of the family got sick, including which hospital they'd go to, where the infected person would quarantine and who would be responsible for their care.

"What happens if somebody dies from the virus? What's next? We've had that level of discussion as well, in terms of business planning and leadership in the family," Schwalb said.

On the business side, they thought about what would happen if they lost a key employee, and what it would take to keep important pieces of equipment operating.

"We consciously agreed to hire two new employees," Roenbaugh said. They chose skilled operators and cross-trained them so that if the farm lost a key member in each of their crops, cattle or potato operations, the business would be able to carry on.

He knows that sounds unusual in these times of tight profit margins but stressed it's a result of changing the thought process.

"Take the time and out loud -- not just in your head -- talk out loud with family or key employees. Look around and say, what do we do if that happens?" he said, adding that you should be prepared to push back against people who argue this type of planning is unnecessary. "Sometimes those discussions are hard to have."

They're currently working on plans for July's potato harvest and how they'll keep everyone safe when 40 seasonal workers arrive on the farm, especially Christopher who is heavily involved in day-to-day operations. While public health experts generally expect the worst of the pandemic to be over by then, most expect periodic spikes in infections.

"It's not over until there's a vaccine," Schwalb said. They've encountered plenty of detractors amidst their preparations. "My response is always, 'You're welcome to laugh at us. We will laugh at ourselves with you if it turns out we're wrong.'"


DTN Farm Business Adviser Lance Woodbury said while rural America is generally less at risk than cities, he still reads about small town hot spots where the virus has had devastating impact.

"If this thing takes hold in some of our farming communities, it could be ugly," he said. Historically, when someone is sick or has an accident, neighbors pitch in to help. But if it's a longer-term issue or several neighbors fall ill, getting the crop planted or tended to in a timely manner becomes much more difficult if you don't have a plan.

He warns there's potentially a double whammy lurking. "There are the farmers that do the work, but with the CARES act, what if the person who does the books gets sick? That's almost as big a risk." The CARES Act is the $2 trillion stimulus bill that's providing small business loans, USDA assistance and numerous other forms of aid.

If you don't already have a contingency plan in place, for coronavirus or otherwise, Woodbury suggested starting with an analysis. Identify critical functions of your business, like crop operations, agronomy, marketing, finance and human resources. Then walk through different scenarios.

"The real question is either who or what. If I can't make the decision, who would make the decision or what would we do instead of someone making a decision in that area?" he said. Then document those decisions, communicate with those people, and make sure they have necessary training or access to the appropriate information, like passwords to important accounts.

Now might be a good time to talk to family that's left the farm. Perhaps a son that's stuck in an urban area could take a few online classes in Quickbooks and could help if needed, Woodbury said.

He also suggested looking outside of the family.

"Is there a neighbor nearby that you would see a partnership with down the road? Is there a young farmer, if you're at succession age and don't have a game plan, might this prompt the conversation?" Woodbury asked. "I guess it's a little more of a morbid way to get into the conversation, but it gets you into the conversation nonetheless."

Newcomer, his wife and son usually meet with their advisory board in person three times a year. The board includes members with an agricultural background as well as those from other types of business.

"Each person on the advisory board brings something to the table," he said. "When you get nine people in the room at one time, everyone has something to contribute or ideas of how you can manage through different things. It's been a great value to our operation to have a team of people that we can rely on and go to at different times of the year."

Woodbury said some farmers may be hesitant to start up a formal advisory board, which often includes compensation.

"It doesn't need to be that grand," he said, adding that he has a monthly conference call with a farmer as well as the farmer's attorney and accountant. "An advisory board can look a bit like that. Think about who key people are and how they might help you think through challenges."

Roenbaugh said talking through critical issues and listening to everyone's ideas has been key to preparing the farm for the coronavirus.

"I think that if there's one key takeaway, it's be open enough with people that are close to you -- family and business both -- to talk about it, to have that discussion," he said.

Katie Dehlinger can be reached at

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Katie Dehlinger