Poultry During a Pandemic
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Our guest today requires very little introduction, as she is somewhat of a celebrity around these parts. Jenny Rhodes is a lifelong ag advocate and has been raising poultry and growing grain in Centerville, Maryland for over three decades. Her love of education and helping fellow producers prompted her to join the University of Maryland Extension system in 1997, where she's now a principal agent. Ever since Jenny was a young girl, she's really taken a leadership role, not only within the ag community, but in her community as a whole. And she continues to do so today as both a member of the Delmarva Poultry Industry and our own Board of Directors. I honestly, Jenny, do not know how you do it all, but it's very much my honor to have you on the podcast today.
Well, thanks. Thanks for having me. And I'll say that when you love what you do, it's pretty easy.
DO YOU MIND TALKING TO EVERYONE A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND - YOUR VERY EXTENSIVE BACKGROUND IN AG AND YOUR OPERATION TODAY?
Sure. I grew up in agriculture. My mom and dad are really the first advocates of agriculture that I learned from. My dad was not afraid to teach us anything. And, at the age of eight years old, I was out driving a tractor and doing things. Other farmers are like, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe you're letting your daughter do that.” I guess that has made me be the person I am today. I'm really not afraid to delve into anything. But I was pretty lucky growing up. My mom was a nurse and she was able to stay home and raise us, and we all worked together as a family. I'm the oldest of five children, and pretty much all of us are involved, in one way or the other, in agriculture, some a lot more than others of my siblings. But we were in 4-H and we were in FFA. That's the start, I think, of your leadership and learning life skills.
And then on, I worked and went to college at night. I went back later and got my bachelor's and master's degrees. I've done a little bit of everything, but in my heart all I really wanted to do was own my own farm, and the poultry industry really gave me that ticket. I knew that, and today we still can't go buy a farm and pay with just raising greens, corn, wheat, soybeans. So the poultry industry was my ticket into getting into agriculture. Nobody in my family had really been in the poultry industry before. It was really a whole new experience for us.
At the time, I was married. A few years later, my now ex-husband decided that he wanted to leave. So he left and we carried on. I was not changing my children's lives. They were eight and 10 when we divorced, and it was very important for me to raise my children on a farm, just like I was. And people were like, “Oh, you're a woman, yada, yada, yada.” But I'm like, you know what, my mother and father instilled in us that we could do anything that we wanted to do. And that's what I've done. So my sons and I have always worked together, and today they help me on my farms, and they have their own operations. They both own their own grain and poultry farm. I'm pretty proud of that. And my dad, my brother and my mother really helped me to raise my sons also. It takes a team, but I was really the one that taught them about the poultry industry. And now they have their own poultry farms, and they do a really good job. They also have grain operations, too.
That's incredible. You've got quite a family legacy there.
HOW IS IT WORKING WITH YOUR SONS? WAS THAT SOMETHING YOU ALWAYS HOPED WOULD HAPPEN OR WAS IT KIND OF DONE BY SURPRISE?
Well, growing up, I always thought it was the worst thing in the world because we always had to stay home and work, and I didn't get to play any sports. I did get to play basketball, and I was not very good at it. But we had fun and that was the most important part of it - we had fun doing that. But later in life, I realized the things that I did with my family, working with my family, were much more important than any other sports. I was involved in FFA and those kinds of things. But working with your family – we were a family of seven and we worked all summer. I've told this story, it's my favorite story to tell.
We worked in a garden, we worked on the farm all summer and our vacation was really the county fair, the community's county fair, of which we were in 4-H. Each of us would enter like, a hundred things, in the fair. I don't know how that was a vacation, but it was for us and it's still my favorite week of the year. Growing up, we didn't know anything different, and I really wanted to work side by side with my sons. And certainly, they always have worked on a farm. But when I got divorced, yet at eight and 10, they still helped me a lot. They would get up and we would work in the chicken houses in the morning before school, then I would head out to work, but it all worked and it all got done. People were like, “Well, you don't spend any time together.” I’m like, yes we do. We work together. That's the best thing of all.
A lot of people don't understand, we don't need to go to the movies. I don't like to shop anyway, and we don't need to go shopping. The best thing is when you can spend time working with your family. And now my grandsons and my granddaughter too, we spend time working together. I enjoy every minute.
That's definitely team bonding. That's for sure.
Yes it is.
That's quite the work ethic. You are very well known around these parts for being a poultry farmer. I've done a tour at your farm before. You're very welcoming to anyone that's interested in learning about your operation. So kind of switching gears here to poultry, the industry. You've navigated several challenges as a poultry farmer. You've had avian flu outbreaks and you've had to put some serious biosecurity measures on your farm, so I know challenge is definitely no stranger to that industry.
HOW IS THIS PANDEMIC DIFFERENT THAN SOME OF THOSE PAST CHALLENGES THAT YOU AND YOUR FELLOW POULTRY INDUSTRY REPRESENTATIVES HAVE FACED?
When COVID-19 first came around and I was working from home, I really enjoyed working from home and working from my farm office. It's been very gratifying to be on the farm. But the first couple of weeks I'm like, “Oh, this is going to be good.” Poultry and agriculture is not going to be affected because a lot of times in economy downturns, agriculture does very well, but this is certainly a pandemic, like none of us have ever experienced. It has affected all of us, and I don't care who you are and what parameter you're in in life, it's really had a lot to do with many of us, that's for sure. But for us, we've always practiced good biosecurity.
The new biosecurity is social distancing. We've always done that really in the poultry industry. We come home from work or come home from being in town or going to get parts. We come in our house, we take off our shoes, we take off our clothes. Sometimes we take a shower, depending on where we've been. Then we put on our barn clothes and our barn shoes and go back down to the farms or chicken houses. It’s something that we’ve always done and I think a lot of people just don't have a clue. I've told people before that when you get home from work or wherever you've been, there's a lot of germs on the bottom of our shoes. You should be taking off your shoes. You should be taking your clothes off, and throwing them in the washing machine. And at least changing your clothes, if not taking a shower.
I think that's one thing the poultry industry has always been very good at as is biosecurity, and just washing your hands. We wash our hands before we go to the chicken house. People are like, “Why are you washing your hands before you got to the chicken house?” Well, because you don't want to take germs into your chicken houses, the same way when you get done working, you don't want to take anything out either. I think it's just the unknown of not knowing. You're in charge of these animals 24/7, and we're an integrated system, meaning every piece of that integrated system has to work. And I never in a million years ever thought about really, what happens when the plant workers can't get to the plant to harvest the chickens, and that happened.
But we have gotten through it and we've learned a lot of things. I think the companies, everybody, has learned, and we're all learning about the things that we can do, and that we all have to work together. Communication is key to making producers and everybody up the line really understand. I think a lot of it was, and I didn't really understand this myself until after all this, that when you look at our food chain, 50% of our food goes to the grocery store and the other 50% goes to restaurants and institutions. When that part got shut down. It just put a real big kink in the system. But we're marching through.
What are some things that you all are doing to adapt to some of those problems that you're seeing? The restaurant piece was one thing that, like you, I didn't think about as part of our food supply chain, but it's clearly a large part.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT YOU AND YOUR FELLOW PRODUCERS HAVE DONE TO ADAPT AND ADJUST TO ALL THIS?
I think a lot of it is to listen to the companies, the veterinarians, and the grow out managers. They're trying to make decisions on how the birds grow, and they're thinking about placings. You'll listen to national news, I do a lot of listening to the national rural news (I call it), and processing plants may never be back to 100% of what they were just because of the social distancing and what they have to do. So as we do that, we have to think about placements of birds. Some companies, there's five here on the shore, I'd say two companies are probably kind of full steam ahead. They're still placing the same amount of birds in the houses. And then other companies, the company that I grow for, said we can look for some extended layout.
So, we are looking at our budgets and we are looking at our expenses, and what are the things that we can cut. As a county ag agent, I have a lot of those talks with people. Look at all of your expenses, right down to your cell phone bill. It might be $5, but $5 a month - that adds up. We have a dumpster. Look at that bill, maybe that’s something. They used to come and pick ours up every week, now they come every other week.
We're looking at every single thing, every expense. When I pay my bills and looking through my QuickBooks, I'm looking through my expenses. What are the things that I can cut out? And I think the other thing is, if you were to get into that situation where you think you can't make your payments – for example, we have quarterly mortgage payments. Say we get to that point where layouts are that long and we may not be able to make our payments. First thing is of course, to reach out to Farm Credit or to your bank and communicate. Let them know what's going on. But I've told people to know what it costs you to personally live.
When you go to the bank, they want to know what is costs you to personally live. You may be pretty frugal, and maybe it doesn't cost you that much to live. That may give you other cashflow for your farm. I think the financial piece is just so important, and the management piece, like keeping your farm clean, cutting grass, and picking up trash. It doesn't cost a lot to go and pick up trash, or whack a few weeds here and there. It takes a little bit of labor, but no matter what you should take pride in the way that your farm looks. And we all do. My dad, our whole family, we all take pride in our farms. When somebody pulls onto your farm you want them to say, “Oh, this is a really nice farm. Jenny does a good job taking care of her farm.”
That’s great advice.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT DPI AND EXTENSION ARE DOING RIGHT NOW TO SUPPORT PRODUCERS, TOO? HOW ARE THEY SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY RIGHT NOW?
Our job at Extension is through education. We have started a weekly lunch with your favorite ag agents. We partner with University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is Jennifer Timmons, and Georgie Cartanza at the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. And then Dr. John Moyle is our poultry specialist, and myself. Every Wednesday at lunchtime we invite anybody to get on and we talk about what's going on. We want people to have an outlet just maybe to vent or to ask questions that they don't understand about what's going on. We kind of left it open probably the first month. We just had one today, and we talked about neighbor relations. It always helps when you have a topic.
Out of bad things come good things. We will continue to do this because it's easy. You get on your computer, they get on their phone, they can still be at home, and nobody has to travel anywhere. Biosecurity is not an issue. We can have people on from Pocomoke to Delmar to Centerville. It’s also not just for growers, but we asked the allied businesses to come on. There was a gentlemen on today from the Maryland Department of Ag because we were talking about neighbor relations. We can all work together to do these things. We invite anybody really to get on and to listen.
Then on the DPI side, we've done some lunch and learns, talking about solar and some other opportunities out there. They've really been working on the legislative side to help our legislators to understand. We had an Eastern Shore delegation Zoom meeting. That was held on a Friday to talk with them about what's going on. We have neighbors and other people that really don't understand the impact of COVID-19, and don't understand why there's not chicken in the grocery store. Because, certainly Jenny has 80,000 chickens right down the road, but why is there not any in our grocery store? That’s what we need to try to explain.
I also do volunteer work with the National Chicken Council. They're out of DC, and they are advocates of chicken. I've done a lot of tours with them where social influencers come into my farm. I’ve been working with them and figuring out how we can get federal assistance to farmers that may need it. I don't believe that every person needs federal assistance, but if there's a farmer that's going to be laid out a long time, what can we do to help them? DPI, myself, others have been working with Farm Bureau, grain producers, and National Chicken Council on what things we can do to help farmers. Because really, in the Corona Food Assistance (CFAP) Program that was rolled out by the USDA, poultry was left out of that. I understand, poultry is usually not part of a lot of the USDA programs, because we don't own our birds. But, because of the pandemic, they're trying to figure out a way that if they share a reduction in income then to get some type of assistance to that farmer. We're still working on that. One size does not fit all in ag, and we really want it to go to the people that need it and not the people that don't need it. That's the tough part.
I love the steps that DPI, Extension, and the National Chicken Council are taking to pull the community together to advocate for themselves. That is crucial right now.
AS YOU TALK ABOUT ALL OF THE EFFORTS YOU'RE INVOLVED IN, DID YOU KNOW YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BECOME AN ADVOCATE FOR AG? WAS THIS SOMETHING THAT YOU ALWAYS HAD THAT DRIVE IN YOUR LEADERSHIP DRIVE?
No, I really didn't.
No? I don't believe that.
I know. I think you never know in life where it might take you, but I had a mentor and really didn't even know it. I am really a big proponent of mentors and I try to mentor other people. There was a person that mentored me, and he actually worked with Farm Credit. His name was Kenny Bounds, and he is still my mentor today. I think sometimes you're being mentored and you don't even know it. It's when you call, “Hey Jenny, can you do this?” Or, “Hey Jenny, can you do that?” I think sometimes we don't always step up. And for me, I'm a graduate of LEAD Maryland. I was in Class IV, and I think that was probably -
Hunter is eight, Cole is six, Oliver is four, Audrey is one and a half, and Henry is a little over a year. They keep me very busy when I have all five of them. It's just a joy. They were actually here last night and we were all swimming in the pool, and that's just the best for me. When they're here and we can eat together, or even if we're working together, it really doesn't matter because we're all together and we're all spending time together. When I see my sons talking with each other and conferring and asking, “Well, what do you think about this? And what do you think about that?” I see them both kind of being leaders in their community. I look for both of them to step up, but when you're young and you've got a family - I think leadership is all about the right time. And you can be leaders in different ways. I have a lot of women that say they want to be a leader, but their kids are small. And I understand. I couldn't do all that when my kids were young either, but once they got older, and I think LEAD Maryland really helped me. That was really the first time. When I was at a LEAD Maryland seminar and my chickens were delivered that day, and I was a nervous wreck. But that's part of really being a leader.
That actually tees up my next question perfectly which is:
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOURSELF WHEN YOU WERE JUST STARTING OUT, STARTING YOUR OPERATION? WHAT'S SOME ADVICE THAT YOU CAN IMPART ON SOME YOUNG PRODUCERS THAT MIGHT BE GOING THROUGH THAT SAME NERVOUSNESS AND FEELING?
Well, common sense always prevails, I think, thinking about different things. And you may be scared or worried about things, but educate yourself first. No question is ever dumb, reach out to another person if you really don't understand the situation you're in or what's going on. I think sometimes communication is just so important. In all things, my mother always said this: Everything happens for a reason and you're not really sure. But everything does happen for a reason, and it really makes you a better person in the end. You may fail. My life has not been perfect, that's for sure. I have failed at a lot of things, but when you fail, it makes you work even harder to move ahead. Especially when people say, “Oh, you can't do that.” I'm like, “Don't tell me I can't do that because I will show you that I can do that.” I think determination is a lot of it also.
I totally agree with you. I've really appreciated this conversation, Jenny. Two Jenny's on the same podcast, I was looking forward to this day. I just have one more question before I let you go and back to your oh so busy schedule.
WHAT DOES JENNY RHODES ADVOCATE FOR IN AGRICULTURE?
Educate people so they understand what we do. We, as farmers, want the same thing as everybody else. Everybody wants a clean Chesapeake Bay. We want good air quality. We want cheap food. And I think as farmers, we want the same thing. The reason we do what we do - we take a lot of pride in raising crops and raising animals. Yes, it's a business, but it's also a way of life. I really want people to understand what we do and why we do it.
I love that. And I think you are off to a great start, I appreciate your time today, Jenny, and thank you for everything that you do for Farm Credit and for agriculture in general.
Well, thanks for having me on, I appreciate it.