COVID-19 on Washington farms

| Lori Tiede
A red barn and farmland in the foreground with Mount Baker in the background.

A UW research team surveyed Washington farmers and ranchers about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. More than 260 farms of all sizes responded, representing 33 of the state’s 39 counties. Photo: Bryan Hanson via Pixabay.

Nearly two-thirds of farms experienced increased operating costs, according to new report from the UW Center for Public Health Nutrition, DEOHS and partners

Headshot of Sarah Collier
DEOHS Assistant Professor Sarah Collier

Nearly 60% of farms and ranches in Washington state were negatively impacted by COVID-19 in 2020 and expect to make changes to adapt their businesses in 2021, according to a new report published by the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition.

Nearly two-thirds of producers experienced increased operation costs, and nearly 50% experienced annual revenue decreases when comparing 2020 to 2019 revenue, according to the report produced in collaboration with Washington State University (WSU) and the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).

“It’s great to be able to put numbers behind what farmers have been experiencing this past year,” said project lead Sarah Collier, assistant professor in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences and in the Nutritional Sciences Program in the UW School of Public Health.

Shifting marketing channels

Collier led a research team that surveyed Washington farmers and ranchers between Dec. 1, 2020, and Jan. 31, 2021. They heard from 265 farms ranging in size from less than 10 acres up to 2,000 acres, representing 33 of the state’s 39 counties.

The most severe impacts for farmers during the pandemic have been due to closure of direct marketing outlets, closure or reduced capacity of indirect marketing channels and disruption of distribution systems (Figure 1), the researchers found.

Graphic showing Change in gross annual revenue attributable to specific marketing channels for those farm businesses utilizing a channel in 2019 and/or 2020
Figure 1: Change in gross annual revenue from different marketing channels for Washington farms, 2019-2020.

“Farmers have had to adapt in many ways,” Collier said. “Not surprisingly, we see a lot of shifts in marketing channels: increases in direct-to-consumer and decreases in direct-to-restaurant, for instance.”

But experiences varied widely across farms. “Some ramped up production, some reduced production. Some had to decrease their workforce, while others couldn’t find enough workers,” Collier said. “Every farm is unique, and the diversity of experiences here really speaks to that.”

A year of rapid changes for farms

More than half of farmers made at least one change in their operations.

Forty-four percent of farmers increased production, and 29% decreased production. Some farmers had ideas for adapting, but more than one-third of respondents said financial, labor or other issues were obstacles to making changes.

Many farmers also formed new relationships and networks with other farms, co-ops and agribusinesses.

State and federal COVID-19 relief aid programs available to farmers have been well-received by those who have been successful in applying. However, some farmers said the application process for assistance was too complicated for a farm their size or that they were not eligible.

On the horizon: More shifts in production volume

In 2021, more than two-thirds of farmers said they will continue to make significant changes because of COVID-19, with 38% expecting to adjust production volume in some way.

Farms from across the state were represented in the survey, with about 60% of respondents farming in Western Washington and 40% in Eastern Washington. The highest density of participants by county included counties in the Puget Sound area as well as Franklin, Spokane and Yakima counties.

Read the report: COVID-19 Impacts & Adaptations Among Washington State Farm Businesses

Other members of the research team include:

  • Yona Sipos, UW assistant teaching professor, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences
  • Anna Fogel, UW graduate student
  • Dani Ladyka, UW graduate student
  • Taya DeLong, UW student assistant
  • Laura Lewis, WSU associate professor
  • Laura Raymond, WSDA regional markets program manager
  • Madison Moore, WSDA agricultural economist


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