Agricultural producers are being severely impacted by the COVID-19 virus that has reordered agricultural economies across the globe. See how farmers are responding in these uncertain times.
Jon Shaw expects some fluctuations in his farming operation, because he knew he was getting into a business that is, by its nature, unpredictable. His Maryland-based Karma Farm delivers lettuces, herbs, and edible flowers to about 25 farm-to-table restaurants in the Washington, DC metro area. Or, rather, delivered. When the coronavirus arrived, forcing restaurants to close their seating areas, he says, “most of our customers evaporated.”
The speed of it was stunning. Fortunately, Karma formerly operated a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation, and Shaw still had its email list. His staff sent out a blast, and the farm went from zero to 65 subscriptions almost overnight. Now CSA customers eager to avoid grocery stores roll up for contact-free pick-ups. Shaw expects to resuscitate the restaurant side of his business—eventually. “I don’t think things are just going to snap back to where they were,” he says. “It’s going to take a while.”
Welcome to the world of COVID-19, the pandemic that has reordered economies around the globe, including the agricultural industry and food system. Many farms that sold produce, dairy products, and other crops to restaurants and schools have seen their customers vanish. Some have been forced to lay people off, while others lack the necessary help to plant and harvest food and other agricultural products with workers taking shelter from the pandemic. And some large-scale food producers, including meat suppliers, have had to close factories because of virus outbreaks, causing disruptions to the food supply chain.
As people try to avoid grocery stores and face limited restaurant options, more are turning to direct food subscriptions. Charley Cummings is the owner of Walden Local Meat Co., a Massachusetts-based company that works with 75 partner farms to provide beef, chicken, pork, and lamb to about 20,000 subscribers from New Jersey to Maine. He has experienced “overwhelming demand”—in fact, requests for subscriptions have grown tenfold. Far from laying people off, Cummings has been worried about being short-staffed.
Cummings thinks the pandemic could accelerate certain farming trends that were already underway—especially the growing number of consumers looking to buy locally grown meat and produce directly from farmers within the e-commerce realm. “There’s a certain amount of panic buying going on, but the more people use these services, the more they’ll value them,” he says.
But in other areas of the United States, COVID-19 has pushed farmers to the brink of insolvency. Robb Ewoldt, a corn and soybean farmer in Iowa, says the downturn of the past six weeks triggered commodity price drops that have effectively pushed him underwater. He is now unable to sell his primary crops for the cost it takes to grow them.
“This is real around Iowa, and it’s real around the Midwest,” says Ewoldt, who is secretary of the Iowa Soybean Association’s executive committee. “It’s amazing what [the pandemic] has done. Words cannot explain what we’re going through.”
It might seem odd that, at a time when the world needs reliable agriculture production more than ever, unpredictable demand patterns mean that crops are sitting untouched on fields and in barns. But the downturn shows the interconnectedness of the global economy. As an example, Ewoldt attributes the corn drops to a sharp reduction in all modes of travel, with people avoiding air travel and working from home instead of commuting to work. With less fuel being burned, the demand for ethanol has dropped sharply. “We’re too good at what we do” he says. “We’re growing crops and just need to find a place to use them, and we haven’t been able to [since the start of the pandemic].”
Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, says that with schools closed and other outlets gone, “dairy farmers are literally being forced to dump milk.” Farmers like Shaw, who rely on restaurant sales, aren’t all positioned to be able to kickstart CSAs, and now have produce filling sheds. And big Midwestern farmers like Ewoldt, who grow commodity crops, are waiting for markets to recover. “The bottom line,” Moore says, “is that producers are feeling the impact right now.” And the crisis has left them unsure what they should be planting for this growing season.
The food-supply chain has come up with some creative solutions on the fly. For example, growers have forged closer ties with food banks at a time when need is soaring to help fill soaring demand.
And US farmers and industry experts are hopeful that help from the federal government will help address issues with sinking supply and commodity prices. The third stimulus package that the US Congress passed includes a much-needed infusion of cash for agriculture, including $9.5 billion for livestock and specialty crop producers, which includes dairy. There are also funds to tweak markets damaged by trade tariffs and to boost child nutrition and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which rely heavily on agricultural products. The European Commission has moved to pass a package of aid measures that would help farmers, including increased cash advances and a longer period to apply for support. India announced a $23 billion aid package aimed at girding food security, and state governments there are trying to buy up some of the crops that have languished without buyers. So even as farmers struggle, Moore says, “there’s a feeling of certainty that [help] is coming along.”
Moore thinks the farmers of America will rise to the occasion and continue to feed the country through the pandemic, and the payoff for it will come later—once the nation is again reminded of the critical role they play in our lives. “Our mission is to feed the country, feed the world,” he says. “We like to make money in the process, but the reality is there are times when working with others to help make sure everybody is getting fed, that’s the primary mission.”