By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director
Under ordinary circumstances, National Agriculture Day is an opportunity to celebrate the family farmers and ranchers who feed, fuel, and clothe our country.
But these are no ordinary circumstances: a global pandemic has upended modern life as we know it. To slow its spread, millions of Americans are staying home and most nonessential businesses have shut down, causing a dramatic spike in unemployment and bringing the economy to a near-standstill. No industry has been spared disruption – including food and agriculture.
Even as food flies off grocery store shelves, commodity prices have tumbled. Futures for a wide array of agricultural products – corn, wheat, soybeans, lean hogs, and live cattle – dropped markedly in the last two weeks. With fewer cars on the road and oil prices down, ethanol prices have plummeted as well. Restaurant, school, and farmers market closures have eliminated important local markets. Borders have closed and visa approvals have slowed, increasing concerns of farm labor shortages. Though international exports were expected to boost farm income this year, worldwide economic stagnation has made promised trade gains seem unlikely. All of this comes on the heels of a multi-year downturn in the farm economy, a global trade war, and increasingly extreme weather events.
Yet the food system marches on. “Above all else, family farmers and ranchers want to feed their communities,” said National Farmers Union President Rob Larew. “Though they are facing some unprecedented challenges right now, they’re still working hard to make sure everyone has access to the food they need. But farmers can’t do it alone – they rely on the help of farm workers, processors, distributors, farmers market managers, grocery store workers, veterinarians, researchers, and everyone in between.”
For farmers like Jeff Teubner, this starts before their crops are even planted. Teubner, who grows wheat, soybeans, pinto beans, and canola on his family’s 5,600-acre farm in North Dakota, relies on his local cooperative to purchase fertilizer, pesticides, and other supplies needed for planting season. These products arrive at Legacy Cooperative via a complex system of barges, trains, and trucks – and a shipment delay or cancellation could impede an entire year’s worth of work. “Getting timely deliveries is important,” Teubner noted. “Our spring planting season is a pretty small window, so you can’t be delayed for a month and expect any kind of decent crop.” He feels confident that his cooperative, for which he serves as a board member, is well-stocked for the spring, and says that they have taken precautions to avoid shipment interruptions by diversifying where they source inputs from. That being said, “it would be a concern if these shutdowns persist. Any disruption can be devastating.”
Once seeds and associated inputs have been purchased, some farmers depend on employees to get them planted and harvested. This is true for Minnesota farmer Jerry Untiedt, who, during a normal year, hires 115 foreign guest workers from Ukraine and Mexico to assist with any number of tasks, from pruning apple trees to installing water lines. But he worries that this year, border closures and a temporary suspension of H2-A visas may make it more difficult to find the skilled laborers he needs to keep his operation running. “Without these workers, we’re not going to produce what we normally do. We’ll have to prioritize and try to get crops out that have the least amount of risk to us financially.”
Untiedt indicated that labor shortages across the industry could cause a scarcity of certain food items for consumers. “In a lot of Minnesota grocery stores, it’s been a really eye-opening experience when you can only buy one loaf of bread today or one package of toilet paper,” he said. “Food is a national security issue. We want to make sure that the people who produce our food are able to, and that certain hinges on the availability of labor.”
After food has been grown, it still needs to be transported to processing facilities and markets. Due to food safety regulations, in most states, dairy producers can’t do this on their own – instead, a milk tanker truck picks up raw milk from individual farms and transports it to a processing facility. In the event that a truck doesn’t arrive, dairy farmers don’t have many alternatives besides dumping their milk. “A dairy farm has lots of moving parts, animals, and team members responsible for the job getting done,” according to Wisconsin dairy farmer Jeff Peck. If any of these steps are disrupted, “it disrupts the whole supply chain.”
Though livestock farmer and Pennsylvania Farmers Union Vice President Michael Kovach sells at his own farm stand, he too needs outside help to get a finished product for his customers. He sends his hens to a poultry processor about two-and-a-half hours away, and his beef, lamb, and pork are processed at a facility a half hour away. “Without them, we couldn’t do what we do.” If either were to close, he would have to drive six or more hours away for these services. “It’s critical that we keep these guys going,” Kovach said. “They provide a vital link for family farmers to get their product to market in the safest, most efficient, and most profitable way possible.”
While processing presents significant challenges for livestock farmers, distribution has been a “major puzzle” for Colorado diversified vegetable grower Roberto Meza. Meza sells some of the microgreens, edible flowers, and herbs grown at Emerald Gardens directly at farmers markets, but as his operation has grown, he has found other ways to connect with customers. “We’re too big to deal with our own distribution needs but too small to get picked up by a large distributor.” To solve this problem, he has partnered with High Plains Food Cooperative and grocery delivery startup Bondadosa to aggregate food from dozens of local farmers and deliver it to restaurants, grocery stores, and individual consumers. “This approach isn’t just convenient – it builds trust, transparency, reliability, and connection…we’re building this food system from the ground up.”
Many farmers who sell directly to restaurants have seen a drop in sales with recent closures, and Meza acknowledges that he may experience similar changes in the coming days and weeks. But he is trying to stay “as flexible and open as possible” so as to “improvise and respond” to new obstacles. “We are in a very difficult situation that presents a lot of challenges, but it also presents a lot of opportunities. We need to take advantage of that and think about new distribution methods.” He recommended that other farmers work together and share resources to organize local direct-to-consumer delivery services.
Producers who primarily sell at farmers markets are able to circumvent many links in the supply chain. But even so, they haven’t been unaffected by COVID-19. As a precaution, some cities have shuttered open air markets, leaving some farmers scrambling for other outlets for their products. Farmer and Minnesota Farmers Market Association executive director Kathy Zeman says that some Minnesota markets have shut down, but many vendors have been quick to find alternative markets. “Farmers have figured out how to deliver to their customers anyways. In Minnesota, we will probably try to pilot online sales platforms and have people drive by and pick up food.” While this eliminates the community aspect of farmers markets, at least temporarily, it will keep farmers in business and Americans fed. “We can still connect farmers to consumers. We can still get food to people.”
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