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COVID-19 pandemic tests resilience of Kern ranchers

Kern County cattle ranchers have seen their fair share of challenges — drought, floods, catastrophic forest and rangeland fires, depressed markets, increased taxes and regulations and market uncertainty.

But Glennville rancher Sheila Bowen concedes that COVID-19 has tested them.

“There is a misconception that cattle ranchers were profiting from high beef demand and higher beef prices,” said Bowen, who serves as an alternate member on the California Cattle Council, a newly created organization that conducts cattle production and beef nutrition research, and develops consumer and educational programs.

“The fact is that many ranchers received dramatically lower prices for cattle following the COVID outbreak,” she said. “Ranchers had to sell when their cattle reached a certain weight and when range conditions dictated.

“We were limited in how long we could hold onto cattle waiting for the price to improve. When it didn’t improve, we had to sell at a price lower than it had been in the last several years.”

The former president of the California and Kern County Cattlewomen’s associations, and a former Kern County Cattlewoman of the Year, Bowen helps operate her family’s Carver Bowen Ranch, a commercial cow-calf operation that runs cattle on rangeland that stretches from an elevation of 500 feet to 8,000 feet.

Bowen grew up on her family’s Bakersfield ranch. After attending Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, she joined her husband, Jeff Bowen, in helping managing his family’s Glennville ranch. The combined families’ roots in Kern County agriculture go back to the 1860s.

“Ranchers truly are resilient,” she said. “Under adverse conditions, we continue to care for the cattle and the land, adapting management decisions to reflect current challenges.”

And that explains why the California Cattlemen’s Association and the California Cattle Council joined forces to launch the industry’s “Resilience Campaign” to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of the campaign is to reassure consumers and policy makers that regardless of the severity of the pandemic, the industry will continue to produce a safe and plentiful supply of beef.

“Our resilience as cattlemen and women has made us undeniable leaders in sustainable beef and dairy production. And our shared resilience as Californians will ensure we emerge stronger than ever,” said Dave Dailey, chairman of the California Cattle Council.

“We’re reminding folks that this is California and resilience lives here. Our members have created a sustainable legacy built with handshakes and firm commitment to raising healthy animals, a clean environment, and a safe workplace because that’s what makes California home,” added Mark Lacey, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

The media campaign, which includes interviews with California ranchers, such as Bowen, and educational programs, focuses on the message that “regardless of the pandemic’s severity, California’s cattle ranchers will continue to produce a safe and plentiful supply of beef,” explained Katie Roberti, communications director for the California Cattlemen’s Association.

The campaign was launched when “Californians were only weeks into living life amid a pandemic — working and learning remotely, social distancing and eating every meal at home,” Roberti said.

“Around this same time, the news of meat and food shortages in the United States began to make headlines due to food supply chain disruptions from the pandemic,” Roberti said, explaining the campaign was to unite Californians in a shared resilience and “to reassure consumers that California’s cattle ranchers are well-positioned to produce an ample supply of the safest, most sustainable beef anywhere in the world.”

But that resilience has come at a cost. Roberti pointed to an April study that predicted U.S. cattle industry losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will reach $13.6 billion.

“As ranchers, we certainly appreciate the effort of our fellow Californians to make our lives better through their hard work,” Bowen said. “As California recovers from this pandemic, the last thing consumers need are higher food costs that contribute to overall increases in the cost of living.

“The last thing ranchers need is continued market uncertainty and policies that threaten the sustainability of our ranches,” Bowen said. “Together we keep California moving ahead; together we’ll get through this.”