With harvest at hand, farmers’ coronavirus thoughts turn to marketing

Two-thirds of farmers in the poll said they believed “it will be necessary for the president and Congress to pass another bill to provide more economic assistance to farmers.”

Farmers and ranchers are increasingly focusing on market access for their crops and livestock as the coronavirus grips the world, said the Ag Economy Barometer on Tuesday. In a poll by Purdue University for the monthly gauge of farmer sentiment, 45% of producers said market access was the No. 1 concern “regarding your farm and the COVID-19 situation,” an 11-point increase from the previous month.

At the same time, fewer farmers said they worried about the financial impact of COVID-19 on their farms. One-third of producers chose “financial” as their top concern, a drop of 9 points. Until now, financial concerns were a close second to market access in the polling.

“Expectations for excellent crop yields this year combined with price rallies during August for most agricultural commodities” fueled a dramatic improvement in farmer confidence, said Purdue economists James Mintert and Michael Langemeier, who oversee the barometer. “Producers also indicated they were more optimistic about agricultural exports increasing than in recent months, perhaps as a result of recent news about additional export sales to China.” The current reading for the barometer of 144 was the highest since February, just before the coronavirus hit, and up by 33 points in one month.

Purdue did not ask a follow-up question to its query on the top COVID concern, “so we can’t be certain what was on producers’ minds,” said Mintert in an email. Higher prices and reports of large export sales probably reduced fretting over finance, he said. “Market access was a big issue for livestock producers this spring, so I suspect that’s what pushed it up relative to other concerns.”

The Ag Barometer is based on telephone surveys of 400 farmers and ranchers with more than $500,000 a year in production — the upper tier of U.S. agriculture in volume of output. Purdue says the barometer captures “the opinions of the primary drivers of U.S. farm economy.”

There are 2 million farms in America, defined by the USDA since 1974 as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would be sold, during the year.” Half of U.S. farms produce less than $10,000 a year in goods; 7.4% of farms produce more than $500,000 a year, the segment polled by Purdue. They control nearly 41% of the 897 million acres of U.S. farmland.

Two-thirds of farmers in the poll said they believed “it will be necessary for the president and Congress to pass another bill to provide more economic assistance to farmers.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said a new $14 billion coronavirus aid program would be announced soon, the successor to a $16 billion fund created to cover losses due to the virus in late winter and early spring.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters on Tuesday that chances were “very good” for agricultural funding to be included in Republican-backed legislation that could see a Senate vote next week. “I’m going to be advocating for it,” he said during a teleconference.

Producers have little appetite for the digital presentations that have replaced farm shows because of the pandemic but a growing number of farmers say they’ll try them in coming months. One in five respondents in the Purdue poll said they attend a virtual conference or a virtual field day this summer; 44% say they are interested in such online sessions this fall and winter.

But the online seminars and webinars may have a limited audience. When producers were asked what they expected to be their primary source of information to improve their farm management, 42% chose “read farm magazines.” Online meetings were chosen by 20%, nearly the same at the 17% who said “farm radio broadcasts,” and 15% said websites. Emails and podcasts each polled at 4%. Producers named an array of shortcomings with webinars, including a lack of interaction with other attendees.

The Ag Economy Barometer is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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