12 months of COVID

It has been nearly one year since the first COVID-19 case was detected in the United States. Here’s a timeline of the evolving situation as the coronavirus pandemic shaped life for farmers and consumers in 2020.

January

On January 20, 2020 a patient in Washington state was the first person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with this virus.

February

National Farm Machinery Show and Commodity Classic were among the last national industry events to be held in person before stay-at-home orders began.

Crowd of people listening to a session at the Commodity Classic Main Stage in 2020
Photo credit: Natalina Sents

March

New working and learning-from-home practices spiked in March, prompting a disruption across the economy. As needs shifted from large commercial packages of food products to consumer portions, the supply chain struggled.

Wholesale beef prices jumped to record levels and shoppers stockpiled meat in late March. But the run on beef wasn’t helping cattle farmers and ranchers.

David Newman’s pork company in Myrtle, Missouri, lost 95% of its customers in 48 hours when most restaurants shut down in March.

“We are going to rethink how we work with our customers. More than anything, we are going to make sure our consumers have confidence in what we’re doing,” he said in March.

In addition to the farm market disruption, Mark Stephenson and John Shutske of the University of Wisconsin predicted coronavirus would impact farmers’ health and create workforce challenges. An increased demand for masks and other PPE may make it hard for farmers to get respirators, gloves, and other safety supplies, they said.

Katherine Marcano-Bell felt the workforce challenges on her Iowa pig farm. Her family farm trades labor with neighboring farmers and relies on family for childcare. If someone gets sick, there isn’t extra help available.

Interest rates fell in early 2020 creating the opportunity for some farmers to refinance. Brian Scott, an Indiana farmer, will save $100,000 after refinancing one farmland loan and his home mortgage. Tanner Winterhof works in ag lending for VisionBank of Iowa and says many of his clients have taken advantage of low interest rates.

April

As many Americans shifted to working, shopping, and schooling from home, they spent less time on the road. The ethanol industry felt it. When POET, the world’s largest ethanol producer, idled several Midwest locations, farmers lost a home for 110 million bushels of corn.

ADM also idled ethanol production at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Columbus, Nebraska, sites in late April. About 90 employees at each facility were furloughed.

“The evaporation of fuel demand due to COVID-19 has been a knockout blow to biofuel plants across the heartland, who were already fighting an uphill battle against trade barriers, regulatory threats, and a flood of foreign oil,” said Emily Skor, Growth Energy CEO.

Manufacturers made various adjustments as the equipment supply chain also suffered disruption.

Portrait of Great Plains President Joe Michaels
Photo credit: Great Plains
“In the last 60 days as the situation has developed, we have reorganized our production facilities to practice social distancing and increase cleaning and disinfecting. In addition to that, we’ve deployed a system of wellness checks and the use of face masks on a routine basis within our facilities throughout Kansas,” said Great Plains president Joe Michaels at the end of April.

Some equipment manufacturers converted part of their facilities and workforce to making supplies to slow the spread or treat COVID-19 patients. Other agriculture businesses donated PPE out of their inventory to local healthcare providers.

Labor concerns challenged many agriculture sectors in April. Delays in visa application approvals set back the arrival of many H-2A workers who harvest apples, tobacco, blueberries, and other crops around the country.

Workers at meatpacking plants around the country were forced to quarantine as COVID-19 crippled the industry. Several locations closed for a week or more at a time.

At the same time, the government announced plans to step in and help livestock producers with nowhere to go with their market-ready animals due to COVID-19 closures in late April.

At the grocery store, food products continued to be limited while farmers were forced to dump raw products.

In late April, President Trump announced plans for direct payments to farmers coping with the market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program included $16 billion for payments to farmers and $3 billion for the purchase of fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat to send to food banks.

“When you think about the fact that about half of our calories are consumed outside the home, that’s been a dramatic shift in the consumption patterns, and the misalignment of production and supply has caused some real challenges here. As a result, farmers are seeing prices and their market supply chain affected by the virus like they never could have expected,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told the media when the aid package was announced.

May

The livestock supply chain continued to face challenges in May. Processing plants still struggled to keep their workforce healthy while farmers looked for alternative outlets for market-ready animals.

Cattle standing in a grass pasture
Photo credit: Mitch Kezar

Meanwhile, frustrations continued at the grocery store for many consumers. Some farmers seized the opportunity to share their perspective as questions and outrage filled social media.

CFAP applications opened at the end of the month. Producers were eager to learn the details of the program and how they could benefit from the aid.

June

As machinery auctions shifted online to accommodate social distancing and COVID-19 closures, farmers from across the country took interest in unique pieces of equipment up for sale.

“COVID forced adoption of online bidding. We will see a higher number of farmers bidding online after COVID than we did before COVID,” said Kyle McMahon of Tractor Zoom, an auction listing website.

While farmers like Mitch Breunig, Michelle Jones, and Kris Scheider appreciated easy application for USDA’s CFAP, some in the hemp and egg industries believed they’d been unfairly left out of the aid program.

July

The USDA expanded its list of crops eligible for CFAP funds in early July.

In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Representatives Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Chellie Pingree of Maine said USDA “did not provide any specific accommodation” for small diversified farmers with the result that “many of these farms are struggling to access relief or are entirely ineligible for assistance.”

In a separate letter, the National Association of Wheat Growers asked USDA to expand the coronavirus aid program to include all classes of wheat grown in 2019.

Plans for a virtual Farm Science Review were announced in mid-July.

Organizers announced that in-person trade shows for both Farm Progress Show and Husker Harvest Days would be canceled for 2020 in late July.

August

North Carolina-based Maxwell Foods announced it would permanently close its hog operations next year.

“The continuing low prices paid for our product, together with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, make the current and projected financial losses unsustainable for the company to continue operating,” the company said in a statement.

A young pig eating at a trough in a barn
Photo credit: National Pork Board

In August, USDA gave farmers more time to apply for CFAP by extending the deadline to September 11.

Hints of more government support to help agriculture manage COVID challenges continued through the month of August.

September

The average USDA coronavirus relief payment to farmers is less than $16,000, but the biggest operators are getting payments that are 22 times larger, the Environmental Working Group reported in late September.

FSA Administrator Richard Fordyce at a podium
Photo credit: USDA
In mid-September, USDA released details of a second round of COVID-19 aid for farmers, which will pay up to $14 billion to growers of major crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat, as well as livestock, dairy, and tobacco.

Richard Fordyce, Farm Service Agency administrator explained some of the work that went on behind the scenes to roll out CFAP checks to farmers.

“There would be no one here that would have predicted a pandemic. I’m really proud of the department’s ability to be responsive, and to be nimble, and to react – whether it’s natural disasters, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s a retaliatory tariff situation – where we can respond and provide some support,” Fordyce said.

October

An international study linked meat consumption with pandemic risk in late October. The study warned that pandemics will emerge more often, spread faster, cost more, and kill more people than COVID-19 without bold action to halt the habitat destruction that helps viruses hop from wildlife to humans.

Auction companies and farmers became increasingly comfortable with online auctions as social distancing measures continued to cancel in-person events.

“Today, we have more bidders at our sales than ever before. Record after record is being set on prices. Even if COVID disappeared tomorrow, I would expect almost all of our consignment as well as retirement and estate sales to be held online from here on out,” said auctioneer Dan Sullivan.

December

Organizers of the National Farm Machinery Show announced the 2021 event will include in-person and virtual components. The trade show and tractor pull has was also pushed back from February to March 31-April 3.

Reflecting on the year, Oregon, Illinois, farmer Dan Luepkes cited COVID-19 and the supply chain hiccups it caused as his farm’s biggest challenge.

“It wasn’t really the disease, because the disease didn’t really affect our family or people close to us, but what it did affect was day-to-day operations. We noticed a lot of slowing of things. Even U.S. mail seemed to slow, parts were harder to get, and if you ordered something it would take longer,” he said.

The renewable fuels industry lost $3.8 billion in revenue between March and November of 2020 according to Scott Richman, chief economist for the Renewable Fuels Association.

Just before year end, USDA’s Risk Management Agency announced it will extend crop insurance flexibilities for farmers due to the pandemic. Specifically, relief provided for electronic notifications and signatures is extended through July 15, 2021; organic certification, replant self-certification and assignment of indemnity are extended through June 30, 2021.

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