| TSLN.com

From spirits to sanitizer: Distilleries make hand sanitizer to deal with COVID-19 shortages

The panic buying and hoarding in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, has led to a shortage of many cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing products. Even hospitals and doctors’ offices have run short and the manufactures are unable to keep up with the high demand. In response to the shortage the federal government has temporarily waived regulations to allow distilled spirits plants (DSPs) the ability to produce hand sanitizer. The distilleries have to follow the Food and Drug Administration’s formula of at least sixty percent denatured alcohol and having no dyes, fragrances or lotions added.  Rising up to help fill the need, small distilleries across the nation have stepped up to the challenge of changing their production from hard spirits to hand sanitizers. 

Badlands Distillery in Kadoka, South Dakota has switched gears from making bourbon to producing hand sanitizer. “After hearing some national news about the different shortages caused by the virus, we asked around at our local businesses how their supply of sanitizer had been and were surprised to hear they too were having trouble getting the product,” said Sandra Eschenbacher, Marketing and Sales Manager for Badlands Distillery. “I couldn’t imagine hospitals and nursing homes and other frontline people rationing sanitizer or having no supply at all. In the week preceding, we received multiple updates from the TTB (Treasury Tax Bureau, governing distilleries) and distillery groups through emails who were encouraging distilleries to help out. We felt we had the facility and capability and decided to go full steam ahead knowing that we would have to iron out the snags, we were sure to hit, along the way,”       

They weren’t prepared for the response to the announcement they were making hand sanitizer. 

“After we got a few days into the project, we realized just how severe the need was state wide, as hundreds of calls and emails poured in. We were lucky to have a big quantity of 1.75ml bottles on hand normally used for liquor production that we decided to get started with. We did hit a few delays in trucking shipment of glycerin, a few challenges with regulations, FDA, additional licensing, labeling, etc. but overall we worked through it. Quickly we realized we would need much more product to fulfill the orders. Ringneck Energy stepped in to help provide sales of product to meet the demands of manufacturing sanitizer,” Eschenbacher said.   

Badlands Distillery never imagined the turn this would take in their business. They ran their first still run on Jan. 1, 2016 and released their first two-year aged bourbon last May. They currently self-distribute throughout South Dakota to many liquor stores and several bars and are always adding to their list.  Along with barrels of traditional bourbon they have rye whiskey and brandy aging in barrels that will be released at some date in the future, as it takes time to mature.  

“The corn used in our bourbon mash is grown on the ranch. We are grateful for all our businesses that continue to support us in carrying our spirits and the patrons who enjoy them. And mostly we depend on everyone’s patience as we work to get the sanitizer out to the public,” Eschenbacher said. 

Lazy RW Distillery in Moorefield, Nebraska, was founded in August of 2015, by father and son team Bill and Todd Roe.  What started out as a fascination with old journals from a great uncle, who operated a still on the Niobrara River in prohibition days, has now become a fully licensed whiskey distillery. “Dad and I started this hobby in his shop, and then since the government wouldn’t let us operate that close to a home we moved to the old school in Moorefield,” Todd Roe said. “I was a structural engineer for nine years before going full time in this business. There are four of us working here and we have a huge following now in Nebraska and South Dakota. We use Nebraska corn but since we are selling in South Dakota now, we just purchased corn from there. We are a small distillery with huge standards of quality. We look forward to providing a high-end product for many years to come.” 

After the government changed the rules allowing distilleries to manufacture sanitizer, the Roes were on board with changing their products.  

With most hand sanitizer being very drying to the skin, Lazy RW sanitizer uses xanthan gum, which leaves hands soft and non-irritated.   

“The biggest thing we had to do was bottling and using smaller bottles than we use for our whiskey. We ended up using bottles we had on hand for another project. We try to be fair and keep the costs down. We are covering our costs, but it has been tight. Just making the conscious decision that we aren’t going to be making much money but we are going to stay afloat and everyone still has a job,” Roe said. 

“The reason we decided to keep the cost down was for small businesses,” he said. “And trust me for a guy who has used maybe two squirts of hand sanitizer in my life, it has been a big adjustment to be making it now.” 

For the sanitizer they are using the corn sugar made in Brady, Nebraska by Casey Miller that would be used ordinarily to produce whiskey. The sugar is transported to Moorefield for the distilling process. So far they have produced over four hundred gallons with 80 percent going to small businesses, nursing homes, Nebraska State Patrol, local sheriff offices and first responders.

Food service: Local vendors innovate to survive

It’s true that crisis can drive innovation – just think of the space team of Apollo 13, miraculously reconfiguring oxygen tanks. As Covid-19 has swept the globe disrupting systems from health care to education to food supply, small business owners have had to either innovate – or watch their company struggle for air.  

Distilleries and skin care companies have become hand sanitizer manufacturers. Specialty boutiques are hosting pop-up sales events online. Restaurants have shifted to curb-side pickup.   

In the rural, central Minnesota town of Brooten, Alise Sjostrom and her family own and operate Redhead Creamery. Two months ago they were a thriving dairy and destination artisan cheese shop, built on a dream Sjostrom had since childhood to return to her family farm and make cheese. In 2013 she crafted her first batch of farmstead cheese and in 2014 opened the processing facility, complete with an underground pipeline that carries milk still warm off the cow to curdling vats. The tasting room offers “ridiculously good” cheese trays, craft beer and tours, and serves as an idyllic event center. 

“We are kind of a shop in the middle of nowhere,” says Sjostrom. “We’ve found it’s the journey that brings people out here.” Their customers come from the Twin Cities and other urban areas to participate in the culinary and agritourism experience. Redhead Creamery marketed their wares – aged cheddars, whiskey washed munster, creamy brie and fresh curds – primarily to restaurants through a distributor.  

“Well, that was what we normally did,” says Sjostrom. In mid-March as the virus spread, everything changed drastically. 

Redhead Creamery was doing a limited amount of direct sales to customers – but suddenly it became their means of survival. They launched paid advertising, mapped out a delivery route and started packing up coolers in the back of pickup beds. “Now we are literally delivering cheese to our customers’ doors or meeting them somewhere where we can safely transfer their order,” says Sjostrom. Their primary routes include to the Twin Cities as well as Sioux Falls, S.D., with stops along the way. 

“It was something we quickly decided to try out of necessity; we needed to get our bills paid and have cash flow.”  

The idea exploded – in a good way. Sjostrom says they have been overwhelmed with sales and while the national quarantine has meant boredom for a lot of people, “we are feeling a little overwhelmed, and we could really use a nap.” 

She said the support from as far as three states around them has been amazing. “No one wants to go into stores right now, and they also want to support small, local businesses,” she says. “We’re encouraged by all the people who want us to keep rolling.” 

Sjostrom says even though the short-term is so successful they laughingly wish they were making butter and bottling milk as well, they don’t have a clear idea of what long-term will look like. She says large-scale, continued delivery would have to include designated employees and specialized delivery trucks. 

“It will be interesting to see if people’s buying habits change or not once we get through this,” she says. “I don’t know what that will look like.”  

As Redhead Creamery started packing ice chests with cheese, several states away in Bozeman, Mont., Jamie Van Dyke and her business partners of Produce Depot, a wholesale, locally-raised fruit and vegetable distribution business, also knew they had to start packing – one way or another.  

Two months before COVID-19 hit, the partners had finalized an expansion of their business from the Big Sky and Bozeman area, where they worked strictly on a wholesale basis, to Billings. “The timing couldn’t have been worse – we had just signed a lease on this huge warehouse,” says Van Dyke. But when the Big Sky resorts that comprised the majority of their business closed completely they started thinking outside the bag and shifted from a wholesale to a retail mindset almost overnight. 

“Our initial idea was to do a ‘community supported agriculture’ type offering out of our wholesale locations, where people come in and fill their own bags with produce for a flat $30 fee,” says Van Dyke. They quickly realized they were not dialed in on the costs and profit margins of people filling their own bags. However, that was soon a moot point when Montana’s shelter-in-place edict was issued.  

So they shifted to a pick-up option – customers would order a $30 bag and Produce Depot controlled the contents – which they offered out of their warehouses in both Bozeman and Billings. “That went well, so we decided to add a delivery route,” says Van Dyke. “It took off like crazy.” 

They started by delivering 20 bags a day and have now capped orders at 250 in each location, with about 170 of those deliveries. “We have demand for way more, but we have maxed out on our staff and capacity for the time being,” she says. 

Even though Produce Depot shifted gears on the go, it wasn’t an overnight success.  

“The first time we did residential deliveries, we were like: ‘What are we doing? This is way too much work and we’re losing money!’” says Van Dyke. The team reevaluated inputs and organizational structure, adding a website to take orders and payment – eliminating 500-600 daily emails and 15-hour work days. “It’s working great now and it’s making money, but it took a lot to survive to get to this stage.”  

They try and buy local as much as possible, and are open to ideas of local products that match their model. Van Dyke says for her and her partners, there was no choice but to innovate. 

“We had all put everything we have into this venture, and if it didn’t work we were screwed. We had no other option. We put our heads together said ‘We have to figure this out,’” but it has been a rough couple of weeks.” 

Van Dyke says the fact that all three of them grew up in Montana – she was raised on a registered Angus ranch near Bozeman – provided a similar foundation of hard work ethic for their team, which got them through the late nights and long days. And there are some silver linings. 

“I think this pandemic is going to make the local food movement stronger. If there’s anything positive I’ve seen it’s local people coming together and supporting local businesses,” Van Dyke says. “I wouldn’t call the virus a blessing because what is going on in the world right now is not a blessing, but it did make our business stronger and I think it will make us all stronger.” 

Safety at “Steak”: Restaurants adapt to COVID-19 restrictions

While innumerable businesses have been forced to close during the COVID-19 quarantine, restaurants have been allowed to remain open, but with restrictions enforced. Many restaurants have adapted to serving with minimal contact, however, this doesn’t mean business in this climate is automatically booming.

The Branding Iron Steakhouse, Belle Fourche, South Dakota

The Branding Iron Steakhouse in Belle Fourche has adapted to the quarantine demands, however, owner Toni Moncur said they are doing less than 50 percent of the business they were prior. They’ll keep pushing on, she said, and find ways to creatively serve the customers.

“We’ve had a lot of take-out orders,” Moncur said. “They’re staying home and not going out to eat and pushing the envelope.”

Her employees have naturally weeded themselves out to a manageable number given the minimized work load. Many were college students attending Black Hills State University who have returned home due to termination of on-campus classes, saving Moncur from having to make any cuts.

Several customers who have missed the fine dining experience received at The Branding Iron Steakhouse have found a way to get the same experience while keeping safe distances.

“Some people pulled in and had us deliver to their living quarters horse trailer one week, and the next, it was a stock trailer. They just had a table set in there and ate out there,” Moncur said. “They could still dine-in, still be able to sit down and enjoy a meal.”

Texas Roadhouse

In addition to smaller adaptations, such as transitioning entirely to to-go orders, restaurants within the Texas Roadhouse chain have enacted larger temporary changes. Following their own company desire to support and better their towns, Texas Roadhouse has supported workers on the frontline helping those affected by the virus where possible through provided home-cooked meals, supporting employees through “Roadie bonuses” and refraining from having to make cuts, said Travis Doster, vice-president of communication with Texas Roadhouse. The CEO Kent Taylor made the decision to forego his salary and bonus and was followed by several other executives within the company, Doster said.

“We’ve delivered food to frontline employees and nurses at the hospitals, fire stations, and police stations,” Doster said. “In this case, we can’t find a cure; we can’t help those victims, but we can feed those who are trying to do that.”

Prior to the pandemic, less than 10 percent of Texas Roadhouse’s orders were to-go. Now, 100 percent is to-go, which has posed a small challenge in terms of to-go supplies. The company is adjusting, and they have had very few issue sourcing food, meaning that one item in particular has been a real draw for guests.

“We have had a lot of demand for purchasing our ready-to-grill steaks,” Doster said. “We already have a meat cutter in every location, so that has been phenomenal.”

Governors across the states have allowed for the selling of raw meat through restaurants to be permitted to help alleviate protein shortages in grocery stores. Some Texas Roadhouse locations are also setting up a farmer’s market of sorts, selling produce alongside steaks, as well as offering family value packs, a home-cooked meal that serves four to six.

Extra measures have been set up to ensure the chance of exposure is minimized. To start, Roadhouse employees work in shifts with the same employees. If one employee presents with Corona symptoms, all staff from that shift would be vetted or quarantined. The expected practices are also in place, such as face masks, glasses, gloves, and six feet between people, but employees have found ways to insert joy into the regulations.

“Our employees have put smiley faces on masks, or they’re doing cool designs. In this time, seeing employees that are happy and have a lot of energy makes people feel good,” Doster said. “One store wrote hearts on the floor, so everyone would stand in their heart, six feet apart. We rolled out a program called ‘legendary service, six feet apart’.”

While sanitization is nothing new to the restaurant industry, Texas Roadhouse has heightened its practices. Pens are sanitized after each use, and, if desired, employees place to-go orders directly into a trunk or backseat of a vehicle.

“A lot of people say restaurants are a luxury, but I think we’ve realized that’s not necessarily the case. It’s a big part of the food supply,” Doster said. “I think guests have really appreciated our early efforts in safety.”

The Outpost, Lusk, Wyoming

Much like Texas Roadhouse, The Outpost Café in Lusk, Wyoming, has found a way to provide groceries and supplies to their customers. The town with only one grocery store has experienced several outages despite efforts to keep the shelves stocked, so The Outpost has stepped forward as a secondary source.

“We just ordered a few extra things for groceries, stuff that we noticed the grocery store has been out of and hard to get,” said manager Shadow Smith. “We’ve just been trying to offer it here.”

Patrons within Niobrara County, the least populated in the state of Wyoming, have taken advantage of the staple offerings, such as flour, eggs, gravy, beef, bacon, and bread, and The Outpost has expanded to take-out orders and delivery, a service not offered prior to the quarantine. Online ordering or calling in are also options.

“We’re offering free delivery right now so that people aren’t scared to come out, and we have thermal bags we use for delivery,” Smith said. “We’ve all taken ServSafe courses, and we wear gloves and masks when in contact with other people less than six feet away.”

From vehicles to ventilators: Ford, GM gear up to manufacture medical equipment to combat COVID-19

Production at Ford and General Motors plants across the nation has shifted from cars and trucks to medical equipment, to combat COVID-19. 

While automotive sales have tanked since the pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March, Ford and GM are still up and running. 

But they’re not making cars and trucks. They’re manufacturing ventilators, medical face shields, PAPRs (powered air-purifying respirators), re-usable hospital gowns, and face masks. 

For Ford, the “a-ha” moment came when president and CEO Jim Hackett was talking to White House staff about the impact of the pandemic on the auto industry. As they discussed the shortage of ventilators, he blurted out, “Maybe Ford should help make ventilators.”  

Ford is partnering with GE Healthcare and Airon, a Florida-based company that makes pneumatic life support products. GM has teamed up with Ventec, located in Washington State, a company that has developed a portable personal ventilator. 

The transition from autos to ventilators took a bit of doing. Assembly lines with robotic welding machines and power drills morphed into work benches with hand tools.  

And workers needed training, too. “You’ve got to bring 1,200 people up to speed on processes they’ve not ever done before,” Gerald Johnson, GM’s global manufacturing chief, told the Wall Street Journal.   

The automakers had to secure inventory as well. No single contractor makes all ventilator pieces; they are made by different subcontractors, so aligning inventory for each piece required some time and effort.  

At GM’s idled plant in Kokomo, Ind., a facility that made electronic components for engine controls and air bags, hundreds of workers set up to make the Ventic Life Systems V+Pro critical care ventilator.  

In Ypsilanti, Mich., Ford workers are assembling their parts of the ventilator in a building that used to see production of oil pumps and hybrid-car batteries, and in Flat Rock, Mich., workers are assembling PAPRs.  

Medical device assembly requires oversight by the FDA, who ensures quality. Ventilators are made to sustain life; they cannot be poor quality. “There’s a tracking system you have to meet (when ventilators are assembled), and you have to take the time to do a documentation for a ventilator,” Pamela Fry, vice-president of Airon Corp., told Forbes magazine. Assembling a ventilator requires precision. “There’s been a lot of talk about building ventilators overnight,” Chris Brooks, Chief Strategy Officer for Ventec, told Forbes magazine, “but a ventilator is much more than moving air in and out. If you’re giving the patient too much air and you’re overinflating the lungs, it can cause harm or death. And if you’re underinflating the lungs, you can cause harm or death.”  

The automakers brought their own unique skill set to manufacturing. Hackett, Ford’s CEO, pointed out that they are exceptional at gathering inventory and manufacturing in a short time frame.  “How do you get disparate pieces to be assembled and moved out? Automotive has perfected doing this, so you’re not sitting on billions of dollars of inventory.”   

Henry Ford designed the assembly line 107 years ago, and that is a help to making ventilators and other devices more quickly. Ventilators weren’t designed for high-volume production, and ventilator companies have limited supply chains because the machines are produced in small numbers.  

Hackett explained what Ford is capable of. “With our supply chain, we build an F150 every 52 seconds. This is a machine with a price of $70,000 to $100,000 per copy, so it’s more complex than a ventilator.”  

Ventec’s Brooks understood what GM had to offer his company, in terms of manufacturing ventilators. “It was immediately understood that they could bring a lot to the table, as far as helping us with the supply chain, and bringing new suppliers to source more quickly. GM understands mass production.” Production of ventilators has been a small-scale process, but not with GM and Ford helping out. “We immediately started thinking outside the box: how can we ramp up production?”  

Ford is doing more than making ventilators. In mid-April, they began producing face shields at their Plymouth, Mich. factory, PAPRs, face masks and re-usable gowns for health care workers.  

The gowns, made of silicone-coated nylon, can be washed and reused up to fifty times. The material for the gowns is supplied by one of Ford’s airbag suppliers, with 1.3 million of them cut and sewn by early July. The face masks will be certified for medical use.  

Ford is also providing manufacturing expertise to Thermo Fisher Scientific, a company in Massachusetts that makes scientific instruments and consumables for the healthcare and laboratory industry, allowing them to quickly expand production of COVID-19 collection kits to test for the virus.  

Ford experts in manufacturing, purchasing and supply chain have been working with 3M manufacturers to help increase production of other medical supplies needed for the pandemic.  

Ford and GM are not profiting from sales of the medical devices. Both companies hope to have their costs covered. “We’re not looking for a contract,” Hackett said. “We have a verbal agreement that will be transparent and ethical about the cost, and we really don’t want to profit from this. It’s just not the time for profit. We’ve just put our head down, and we’re building.”  

The auto makers are ensuring their own workers are safe from the virus. They are stationed at least six feet apart and will wear medical grade face masks. Even with the risk of infection, more than 500 volunteered to work at Ford’s Dearborn, Mich. location.  

It isn’t the first time U.S. automakers have volunteered to help in the face of national emergencies. During World War II, GM built tanks and ammunition while Ford made B-24 Liberator bombs. In the 1940s, Ford developed an “iron lung” for polio patients.  

The companies are putting “the pedal to the metal” in getting devices built. More than 100,000 face shields per week, starting in mid-April, were produced by Ford. Alongside Airon, Ford plans on producing 50,000 ventilators by July 4, and GM, with Ventec’s help, has a goal of producing 10,000 ventilator units a month. GM also has a contract to deliver 30,000 ventilators for the national stockpile by the end of August. Ford is making 100,000 medical gowns a week, and as of mid-April, had already made more than three million face shields.  

The automotive giants were happy to join up to help those fighting COVID-19. 

“We knew that to play our part helping combat coronavirus, we had to go like hell and join forces with experts like 3M to expand production of urgently needed medical equipment and supplies,” said Jim Baumbick, vice president of Ford Enterprise Product Line Management. “We’ve unleashed our world-class manufacturing, purchasing and design talent to get a scrappy start making personal protection equipment and help increase the availability and production of ventilators.”  

Sheep Producers Need to Keep Marketing Options Open

Sheep producers need to keep their marketing options open during the COVID-19 outbreak, says Travis Hoffman, North Dakota State University Extension sheep specialist.

“We are undoubtedly in a different time than expected for livestock producers in today’s COVID-19 situation,” he says. “Breeding decisions were made, we put in the effort to get calves, piglets, lambs and/or kids on the ground and growing well. However, we are facing an unprecedented challenge for harvesting the fruition of our efforts for livestock production.”

The harvest slaughter lamb volume was down 38 percent for the week ending April 17 and is down 12 percent for 2020.

“Our current lambs on feed inventory are up 8 percent over last year, and we are on a full path to industry challenges of too much supply as we come through the summer months of sheep and lamb production,” Hoffman says.

The lamb industry is highly dependent on the currently non-existent restaurant trade. Thus, retail is sheep producers’ primary market. During the weeks of March 15 and March 22, lamb purchases in the retail sector had growth of 55 percent over yearly expectations, but this has not been sustained as people load their refrigerators and freezers.

“There is greater demand than ever from the consuming sector to know the producer, and I hope that we can mitigate current challenges via providing a direct market for our consumers of high-quality protein for the family meals,” Hoffman says. “Local food is not new, but the chances to learn more about production practices and building relationships with producers may be at a heightened priority for our consumers.”

One option is for a producer to sell a live animal (prior to slaughter) directly to a consumer. The animal then goes through a custom-exempt plant. That plant is exempt from continuous inspection and only can slaughter and process livestock for the exclusive use of the owners, the owners’ family and nonpaying guests. The packages of meat must be labeled “not for sale.”

However, if an individual wants to merchandise meat products, a limiting factor is the need for a state or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection of the processing plant. Meat originating from state-inspected facilities can be sold only within the state’s boundaries, and USDA-inspected meat can be sold in-state or via interstate commerce.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has a website at https://tinyurl.com/NDMeatProcessors with information for producers who want to harvest their animals and/or merchandise the meat. For information in Minnesota, go to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture site at https://www.mda.state.mn.us/minnesota-state-equal-plants.

“Working with meat processors can provide proactive options with depressed live animal markets for producers to develop alternatives for marketing throughout the spring and summer with challenges that we have never faced,” Hoffman says. “Keep your options open.”

–NDSU Extension

Peterson arranges hog depopulations, plans CCC increase with strings

In a wide-ranging call with reporters today, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he has arranged for the JBS plant in Worthington, Minn., to kill hundreds of thousands of Minnesota hogs that would come on line for slaughter, starting Wednesday. Pork processing plants have been closed because of worker infections with the COVID-19 virus. He also said pork producers must have indemnity payments for the hogs or they will go bankrupt, but that Agriculture Department officials have said they have authority to make indemnity payments only when animals are killed because they are sick, and also that USDA has no money to make the payments. Peterson also said he would favor increasing the borrowing authority for USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation to $68 billion, the amount of authority it would need to be equal with inflation to the legal authority that was established in the 1980s, but that he will support that increase only if the legislation includes a provision requiring the Agriculture secretary to get approval from the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees. He also said he wants a top-to-bottom review of the USDA’s system of purchasing commodities and specialty crops for distribution, which he said takes too long. Peterson said his legislative proposals would be in the next coronavirus economic aid package and that if his provisions including congressional oversight of CCC spending are not included, he will not support the bill. He said he did not know if U.S. firms are still exporting pork, but that it would be a good idea to keep the pork supply in the country, since shortages are anticipated.
–The Hagstrom Report

In it for the duration: Businesses support ag producers through COVID-19 crisis

The production of food has been deemed “essential” in the world affected by COVID-19. While we think of ranchers, farmers and fruit and vegetable growers when we think of food production, the industries that support those businesses are just as essential.  

“Everyone in the world is touched by the agriculture industry,” said Jana Shankle, owner of D&M Ag Supply in Rapid City, South Dakota. “People benefit from strong agriculture everywhere in the country even if they’ve never planted a seed or touched a cow.”  

Recognizing the industry as vital to the health of the country, Shankle and her family decided to keep their business doors open during the national pandemic. With her husband, Paul, and two children, Mia and Jack, Shankle said D&M Ag Supply is working to do their part in supporting the agriculture community.  

Shankle describes the family-owned business as an “A-Z feed store” as they offer hay and manufactured or mixed feeds to every rural and domesticated animal – from alpacas to zebras. Shakle said agriculture is an essential business, and to keep putting food on the table, individuals involved in the industry require the feed her family’s store offers.  

“We continue doing what we do, so they can do what they need to do,” she said.  

But feed is not the only thing ingredient used in the recipe for success in the agriculture industry. Trailers and equipment are vital to many farmers and ranchers, a fact Steve Burnett of Scott Murdock Trailer Sales in Loveland, Colorado, knows better than anyone.  

“The agriculture and construction industries have not stopped,” Burnett said as to why his business has stayed open during the pandemic. “We’re constantly taking care of those guys.”  

Murdock Trailer Sales sells trailers of all kinds and offers customers a full-service shop for repair work. As work has not stopped for the workers in the agriculture and construction industries, Burnett said the company chose to keep their doors open as well.  

“As far as agriculture goes, the food supply is such a critical thing,” he said. “It’s got to continue, and we’ve got to make sure we’re doing our part to keep that sector of the market active.”  

In addition to helping customers by staying open, Burnett said he takes pride in knowing continued business is assisting his employees. He said he wants his employees taken care of and safe, and his team has been more than eager to complete necessary tasks during this unique situation.  

“In no way have we required anyone to come to work, but our employees have all wanted to make sure that they’ve come and done their part,” he added.  

Safety is a priority for both D&M Ag Supply and Murdock Trailer Sales. Shankle and Burnett report they have altered operations of their respective business to ensure the continued health and safety of both their customers and their employees.  

Shankle said her business is taking phone orders and offering curbside service and delivery options. She said payments can be made over the phone, eliminating the need for any employee-customer contact at all.  

Burnett said Murdock Trailer Sales has always offered pickup and delivery with equipment, but his team is working overtime to promote these services to their customers in light of the pandemic and social distancing recommendations. The work environment has shifted slightly as Burnett said staff work to keep services outside and eliminate close quarters.  

Both companies have required the use of proper safety gear and enforced social distancing whenever possible.   

Despite the drastic changes COVID-19 brought to the American population, Burnett and Shankle share a positive outlook for the future of the country.  

Burnett suggests all people emphasize the importance of teamwork and safety. He said this is a battle we cannot win individually – the country needs to come together to combat the problem. With the resilience of the average American, Burnett said he knows we can overcome these trying times.  

Looking toward the future, Shankle said things can be uncertain, but she and her team at D&M are working to continually serve their community in any way that they can. By providing consistent service, she said she hopes they can fulfill the needs of agriculturists.  

“It’s important that we do what we can to keep this industry strong,” she said.  

At the end of the day, Shankle said this pandemic has proven to her once again that people involved in the agriculture industry are the cream of the crop. Even as things remain uncertain, she said agriculturists continue to take of each other and their consumers. The innovation and ambition the members of the agriculture industry are demonstrating during this time is a nod to the American spirit, Shankle said.  

“Americans are strong and determined,” she said. “It’s going to take some grit and hard work for us to pull through this, but you don’t have to look very far within the agriculture industry to find those qualities.”   

More than just burger: Producers Partnership gives ranchers a way to support local communities

Matt Pierson had been struggling to come up with a way to help people who had been affected by the COVID-19 “stay at home” orders when he realized the solution was standing in his pens.  

Pierson, of Livingston, Montana was driving the tractor on April 9, 2020, thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected his community, wishing there was something he could do to help his neighbors who had lost their jobs and were struggling to feed their families. He is a varsity girls soccer coach, and was seeing first-hand how the pandemic and “stay at home” orders were negatively impacting his players and community.  

“Realizing that we raise beef for a living, I came to the quick realization that I’m an idiot,” Pierson says. “I already did all the work, I just needed to figure out how to get it to them, so I started calling some neighbors.”  

In less than a week, Pierson had organized the first delivery of 1,000 pounds of hamburger to local food banks and collected over $10,000 in donations and through a COVID-19 grant, all being used for the processing of the hamburger for the Producers Partnership, the co-op he formed.  

Before the pandemic, The Livingston Food Resource Center, Loaves and Fishes, and the Big Timber Community Food Bank were putting out around 600 pounds of animal protein each month. After the “shelter in place” order, the food banks were scrambling to distribute more than 700 pounds per week. 

“There are a lot of people in our community who are struggling, a lot not working or getting paychecks,” Pierson says.  

To get the attention of as many people as possible, Pierson put out a letter through the local feed store’s mailing list: 

I am helping coordinate an effort from local families, that we will be calling the Producers Partnership, to provide hamburger during the Shelter in Place time. I feel strongly that this will be the time for area producers to make a difference. As of right now we have three cows going to Matt’s Meat and three cows to Pioneer Meats in the next few days. This will be enough hamburger to gain our area food banks about 3-4 weeks. I am calling out to everyone to try and triple that number so we can help our families. Even if you do not have a cow/bull or animal to offer, feel free to help by paying for the processing or portion of. On average a 1200-pound animal will produce about 375 pounds of hamburger at a cost of roughly $660. 

The volume of responses overwhelmed Pierson, who shakes off credit, saying he is just helping organize the co-op and get things from point A to point B, and knowing people on both ends, from the producers to the processors, helped get the ball rolling even faster. 

“These area ranchers, Felton Angus, Sundling Livestock, Lane Ranches, Highland Livestock, WW Mac Ranch, Alan Redfield, O’Hair Ranch and Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, they are people who donate a lot of things in a lot of ways,” Pierson says. “Pioneer Meats in Big Timber, they’ve done all of our work for us forever. Matt’s Old Fashioned Butcher Shop in Livingston, I coached his kids in soccer and have known them forever. It was really, honestly easy to pull together that quickly. Everybody wanted to help.” 

Using hamburger was a strategic tactic. Not only are old cows in a surplus this time of year, turning everything into hamburger instead of worrying about various cuts of beef not only sped up the process and eliminated hanging time for the carcass, but helped the food banks by relieving stress of who would get what cut of meat.  

“We took our cows in Thursday and delivered the first 900 pounds by Friday,” Pierson says. “We were able to accelerate everything and get this out there as quickly as we could.” 

One week later, Pierson, his wife and son delivered the next load of packaged hamburger to the food banks with more momentum on the horizon as more people are eager to jump in and help where they can. 

“Talking to them, you could see there was a need there to try to help them stretch their dollar,” Pierson says of the food banks. “It was really the only way I could see for us to help.” 

Repurposing for a purpose: Turning leftovers into lifesavers, businesses sew masks for healthcare professionals

In the midst of “stay at home” orders and “social distancing,” members of agricultural communities are taking stock of their immediate resources and finding ways to be helpful to others, be it healthcare workers or veterinary practices low on protective gear or school districts who are struggling to make sure each child can participate in online learning.  

WyoTech, an automotive and diesel industry technical school in Laramie, Wyoming and the Buckarette Collection, a high-end fashion boutique owned by a mother and two daughters from Corvallis, Oregon, each saw a need for hand-sewn face masks and got to work, one constructing masks out of fabric from old school uniforms, the other using a small collection of fabric scraps left over from handmade western fashion garments.  

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory closures, WyoTech had to make a hard decision, sending their students home and suspending the remainder of the term until May 11.  

“We are a proud, hands-on training institution, so going to an online model would have been a disservice to our students and the employers that hire our graduates,” says Jadeen Mathis, director of communications for WyoTech. While the school hasn’t been operating, its instructors are still hard at work, especially after learning about the shortage of personal protective equipment that healthcare workers were facing.  

“We got wind that people were making face masks,” says Mathis. “We actually had some masks on hand that we were able to donate to our local hospital in Laramie, but we didn’t have much to donate.” 

So, instead of calling that the best they could do, the school’s trim and upholstery instructor, Charles McDonald, better known as “Mac,” decided to make more masks to donate.  

“Mac’s expertise in the trim and upholstery field is above and beyond,” says Mathis. “He’s owned his own shop, he’s been on numerous TV shows, and when he saw what people were doing, he was like, ‘Well, I can do that.’” 

After a recent rebranding, the school was left with a large supply of old uniforms. Using elastic that was on hand already, McDonald started sewing prototypes. In the first four days, he had sewn over 100 masks to donate to local healthcare, with no end in sight yet. 

“He’s a one man show because we are a ghost town at WyoTech right now. Once he gets everything cut and measured, he can really crank them out pretty good,” says Mathis. “We also plan to make enough for our students. When COVID-19 is winding down, we want to make sure our students are being safe and we are protecting our students and instructors.” 

Each mask is branded with the WyoTech logo, some being embroidered in the school’s own embroidery shop, others were sourced outside of the school as a way to support a local embroidery business during this difficult time.  

In addition to the masks, the school offered both its IT services and laptops to the local school district’s online learning program, after hearing about students in Albany County with no internet or computer, as well as a section of the campus’s dormitory for healthcare workers or individuals who contract COVID-19 and can’t quarantine at home without exposing others.  

“It hasn’t really blown up here in Laramie, but should it blow up, it may be easier to stay or quarantine in our dorms where there are full housing facilities so they are not exposing anyone else,” says Mathis.  

Over 1,000 miles away in Oregon, farm wife and business owner Kristi Schrock has been sewing like crazy, that is when she hasn’t been helping her husband on their small farming operation, or with their road construction business, or their aerial application business. 

If that isn’t enough to keep her busy, Schrock and her two daughters, Katie and Nicole, purchased a small boutique a few years ago after seeing a need for high-quality western wear for taller girls, and have been working to launch it as well.  

“Both of my daughters were past Miss Rodeo Oregon,” says Schrock, “and one thing we realized when they did that, was that finding clothes for taller girls for that type of stage as a state title holder was challenging in the least. That’s kind of why a boutique was of interest to us, to kind of fill that hole.” 

Schrock, who has been sewing since she was a child, saw the need and made most of the clothes that her daughters wore while they were title holders, and despite having no professional training as a seamstress, her creations caught the eyes of other rodeo queens in similar predicaments.  

When Schrock first saw a need for face masks, it was a no-brainer decision. She had a whole sewing room of leftover fabric that was used to line custom blazers, jackets, and purses. 

“When I first started making them, the virus was taking over and things were really building in New York,” says Schrock. “The threat of how it was going to overpower the hospital system was starting to show up.” 

It was right after a number of positive cases were announced at a local Oregon veterans’ home that Schrock says was her “wakeup call” to what could happen. A friend who worked at the local hospital tagged her in a post on social media about handmade masks, and said that it was expected that healthcare workers were going to be needing them soon.  

“I worked with her to see what the health departments needed, because I guess kind of like with the Buckarette Collection, I didn’t want to just do something to say I was doing it, but didn’t actually fit the need,” says Schrock.  

After her first template got the okay from local health officials, she got to sewing. When shortages of PPE masks became more prevalent and masks with pockets for filters were in short supply, Schrock got in touch with local health officials again, and after getting another pattern approved, she got back to sewing.  

“There is a physical therapy office that donated everything they had for masks and gloves to the local hospital, then they didn’t have protection anymore, so I sent a bunch of masks to them,” says Schrock. “Same with the veterinary offices, they donated what they had to the medical professions for their needs and then they didn’t have anything, so pretty much anyone that asks, I’m sending them for free.” 

Schrock refuses to take all the credit, noting that there are many, many more men and women in her area who are sewing just as many, if not more masks that she has been able to produce and distribute. In fact, Schrock turned the situation around and says it has actually been helping her as well.  

“It’s been great because I’ve been cleaning out my sewing room,” says Schrock. 

Contributing to the Cause: Western industries support COVID-19 relief efforts

When one of Equibrand’s employees came to Ken Bray with an idea to make masks in Classic Equine’s production line, he was all for it. 

So the machines normally used to make Equibrand’s variety of equine products were converted to produce PPE masks. 

Equibrand, the parent company for Classic Equine, Martin Saddlery, Rattler Rope, Classic Rope and Cashel Co., manufactures in multiple locations in northern Texas. Granbury, Texas, home to its distribution and production facility, became the site for the making of PPE masks along with saddle pads, equine therapeutics, protective boots, cinches and more.   

It all started with Elena Mata, one of Equibrand’s employees. When the pandemic hit in early March, she found a mask pattern online and began sewing them at home in the evenings and weekends.  

Equibrand’s Classic Equine is deemed an essential business, as it produces veterinary and animal health products, so the operations were excluded from closure during the COVID-19 mitigation period.  

And when Mata approached Cooper Flinn, production manager for Classic Equine, he took the idea to Bray, Equibrand’s CEO.  

It took a bit of adjustment and modification at the Granbury location, Flinn said. The machines used for most equine products are too big to make small PPE masks. But the company has smaller machines, used for sewing labels, fly masks and other equine products that were convertible and well suited for the operation. Some employees brought their personal machines from home to help with the process.  

The crew was capable of handling the job. “We have a lot of experience in sewing and cutting,” Flinn said.  

Equibrand also had the startup materials on hand. They used high grade cotton and when they ran out of their own product, they bought raw materials locally, “as much as we could, trying to help everybody in the community,” Bray said.  

The masks are being donated to the sheriff’s departments, fire departments, first responders, nursing homes and medical clinics in Hood, Hunt and Erath Counties, Texas, where Equibrand employees live.  

The masks have an insert where an N95 filter can be slipped in. “They are re-usable and washable,” Bray said.  They’re not the grade used in ICUs and hospitals, but they can be used by those dealing with the public. “It’s a quality product,” he said. “Our people take a lot of pride in them. They’re very well made.” 

Production started in late March, and it didn’t take much time to get up to speed, Flinn said. “We can move pretty fast on new stuff. We have a pretty experienced team. We have the skill set, to mass produce.”  

Each of Equibrand’s 258 employees is being paid through the shutdown. The Granbury location, where the masks are being made, is open, as is the fiber and rope production facility in Stephenville, Texas. The Greenville, Texas location, where saddles and leather products are made, is shut down, but everyone is still on the payroll.  

Even though overall demand has decreased due to the virus, Bray chooses to pay his people because they’re part of his team. “Our people are everything,” he said. In 2015, the rope production facility burned to the ground, and “we kept employees on the payroll throughout its rebuilding. You can’t replace good people.”  

The Stephenville (Texas) Medical and Surgical Clinic was grateful for the Equibrand masks they received.   

Jenna Sanchez, practice administrator, said getting enough masks “continues to be our number one concern. So far, we’ve been OK with gowns, face shields, surgeon caps and shoe covers, but N95s and masks have been a day by day concern.” She also pointed out that prices for masks have increased, which puts a strain on their budget.  

“We’ve really been able to use the reusable fabric masks for most of our staff. It makes the surgical masks and N95s last longer, to conserve our supply.”  

Another western industry is making masks. 

Hooey has transformed American Made Cap Company’s production line, located in Crowell, Texas, from cap manufacturing to mask production.  

“Like everyone else, we’ve been searching for a way to contribute,” said Joey Austin, Hooey Brands founder and president. Masks are made from repurposed Hooey t-shirts, with parts from caps used for straps and seams.  
Masks made by Hooey will be donated to healthcare systems and first responders. They will be available to the general public for purchase online. Medical facilities can request donated masks by emailing facemasks@getyourhooey.com. Profits from masks sold to the public will be used to make and donate more masks.  

Production at Hooey began on April 6, and, a week later, over 500 masks had been made.  

Hooey’s masks also have a pocket where an N95 filter can be inserted. Medical professionals are using the Hooey masks, which are re-usable and washable, over their N95 masks, to extend their life.  

Hooey is keeping their workers employed making the masks, and being able to contribute to the nation’s crisis is good, said Austin. “Converting the factory to produce cloth masks is our way to help our employees help the country. In these unprecedented times, we’re best served when we’re creative and stay positive.”  

For Equibrand’s Flinn and Bray, it is a point of pride to make the masks. 

Flinn mentions a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Those with the privilege to know have the responsibility to act,” he said. “We have the skills, and we could help. We wanted to do what we could.”  

Bray had the same sentiments as Austin: making masks was something they could do to help. “It’s been overwhelming, to be honest,” he said. “We knew there was a critical need, but the magnitude of the need is unimaginably massive.  

“The outpouring of support from the equine community and the daily requests for masks has been heartfelt and very, very humbling. We will donate about $25,000 worth of masks over the next few weeks, but that number won’t scratch the surface in getting first responders and health care workers supplied with all they need to stay safe and do their jobs.” 

Bray says the western culture responds differently to crises like COVID-19. 

“There’s something about people that throw hay over a fence. They’re just a little bit more caring, a little bit tougher. They’re more of the people who get things done. That’s pretty much the mentality, nature and culture of the western industry.”