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Farmer remains resilient during COVID-19 pandemic


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    SAGINAW, Michigan (WNEM) — Jon Nelson and J Nelson Farms checks off all the boxes for your typical farm: dog, chickens, and cows.

“Always enjoyed the farming, really loved being outdoors, producing things, the manual labor,” Jon Nelson said.

That much was obvious when he a tour of his land. When the pandemic hit, that land would become his only sanctuary, but also his biggest challenge.

“We gained sales on a direct sales standpoint,” Nelson said. “But we certainly lost business in sales to institutions such as restaurants, schools, things like that.”

His wife, Tammy Nelson, took on a more active role than she had before.

“That was probably the biggest source of stress for my role on the job,” Tammy Nelson said.

The Nelsons agreed, direct to consumer online sales were the way to go.

“To say that it was efficient from the start, and we were confident in it, that certainly wasn’t the case,” Jon said. “We had lots of unsurety and we had plenty of learning along the way.”

Insecurity is the name of the farming game, and Michigan State University has an extension dedicated to managing farm stress.

“The number of uncontrollable risk factors really I think contribute large in part to the stress that farmers face,” said Eric Karbowski, a behavioral health educator with Michigan State University.

The data isn’t pretty. A January 2020 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found farmers die by suicide at more than a 30 percent higher rate than the average population.

“I think agriculture ranks high among that because of the number of different uncontrollable risk factors,” Karbowski said.

Farmers can have high debt loads, and they can’t control the weather, equipment breakdowns, market prices, or even the future of their own land. COVID-19 only makes things worse. And though Nelson says he was just fine watching over his cattle, it’s not hard to imagine, on this 200 plus acre farm, many of us would be starved for some socialization.

“I think the increased isolation that was essentially brought forth from the pandemic kind of continued to reduce the number of opportunities for farmers to stay connected with peers,” Karbowski said.

But Jon’s wife knows him best.

“He is, and has always been very resilient and very positive, very optimistic,” Tammy said. “I’m usually the one who says, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do about this?’ and he knows we’ll figure it out.”

And they did.

“We sold every animal we had available, and things looked really good,” Jon said. “So yes, certainly direct to consumer, we expect it to be profitable to the point where we can sustain it. And if that wasn’t the case we wouldn’t continue forward with it.”

On top of the thriving website, they installed a vending machine in their mini-market in front of their farm.

“Previously, when cars came into the driveway, we always thought ‘OK, those are people that want to see us,'” Jon said. “So we’d jump up from whatever we’re doing, go to the door, ‘OK what do they want?’ Now, we watch cars come through the driveway and realize it’s probably a customer and the system seems to be working just fine.”

Which allows Nelson to keep living his dream, working above and below the ground he loves so much.

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