How COVID-19 Impacted Agriculture

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“Have food? Thank a farmer.” That’s the t-shirt slogan any student will see at least once daily as they walk around campus here at ABAC.

Many people in the U.S never once consider how crucial farmers are to the survival of society, or even how much food consumed daily comes almost directly from a farm. Even the best college students can’t survive off ramen and sour patch kids alone; almost everyone eats eggs, cheese, beef/chicken, fruits or vegetables at least once a day.

When the pandemic hit, the nation started to hear a lot about “essential workers”.

The stories about nurses and doctors that worked impossible hours treating patients and cashiers risking their health daily to make sure no family went without food were everywhere.

But what about farmers? They certainly didn’t become less essential when food was disappearing off the shelves and the pandemic couldn’t possibly have made their jobs any easier.

But how, exactly, did COVID-19 change the agriculture landscape?

The first and most obvious problem that our farmers are facing is the elimination of multiple streams of revenue.

Where a farm gets most of its revenue depends on the farm but many farms relied on schools and restaurants to purchase their produce.

At the start of the pandemic, food spending away from home (at places like restaurants) vs. buying and cooking food from a store was about 50/ 50, says professor Tim Griffin at the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy.

He estimates that number fell to about 10/90 when the pandemic hit. Farmers like Loren and Lisa Poncia, running Stemple Creek Ranch relied on restaurants for 11% of their revenue, but other farmers, like Mr. Kurdieh running Norwich Meadow Farms, relied on restaurants for 60% of his revenue.

How much revenue lost per farm also seems to depend on what is grown. Corn prices have fallen by 15%. Why? Because when people started driving less, the demand for ethanol (produced from corn) went down.

Beef and pork prices fell by more than 30% as there were COVID-19 outbreaks in 700 different meat-packing and food-processing plants resulting in a 40% decline in beef/pork production. The apple industry alone lost 174 million dollars.

Pinning down the reason for that loss was harder, but perhaps it was because apples, like many other varieties of produce, were deemed non-essential by financially struggling households. Other farmers like Jordan and Mia Reed, running JM farms, took out a 1.7 million dollar loan after receiving 2 contracts from potato-processing plants in March. When the demand for french-fries disappeared, 75% of those contracts were cancelled.

To make matters worse, many farmers running small family farms make most of their money from off-farm income. Off-farm income is exactly what it sounds like: income earned from another job, usually “construction, production, transportation, professional, sales, and administrative occupations” according to the USDA ERS.

In the past, farmers working small farms took these jobs because of the health benefits, better and more reliable income, and because many farmers feel that farming leaves them with enough time for other work anyways.

“Among all family farms, 45 percent of principal operators and spouses have a job off the farm.” the USDA ERS reports. When those jobs started being eliminated, farmers were hurt along with everyone else.

The second, more serious problem farmers running large farms are facing is that this pandemic is disproportionately affecting farm workers. According to the Washington State Department of Health, “agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting” employees tested positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than any other employment category after “health care and social assistance.”

This is most likely because “Undocumented agricultural workers are likely the most at risk given their higher rates of communal housing, shared transportation, and lack of access to healthcare,” says Choices Magazine.

This is a major problem because at least half of the 2.4 million farmworkers are undocumented immigrants and another 10% of the workforce is made up of immigrants here through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program.

Perdue University reports that more than 276,000 agricultural workers have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide, but this number is a low estimate because it excludes temporary workers, and because many undocumented workers are afraid of testing positive and being fired.

Farmers everywhere are struggling for solutions. As far as keeping workers safe, there is little being done on a national level. As of September 30th, 2020, only 11 states require farm-operators to provide personal protective equipment, social distancing, workplace sanitation, and COVID-19 testing. Even worse, “Only 20 states have issued non-binding guidance for growers,” says the Environmental Working Group.

Financially, as of May 26th, the USDA allowed agricultural producers to start applying for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which allocated 16 billion dollars to struggling farmers and ranchers. The second round of CFAP made up to 14 billion dollars available starting September 21st. Each individual farmer is only eligible for $250,000.

Unfortunately, all of the money allocated for relief did not seem to get awarded, and while the data from the second round of CFAP is not yet available, the distribution of the first round of CFAP shows an unsettling trend.

According to The Environmental Working Group, “The top 1 percent of farms got 22 percent of CFAP payments, for an average payment of $352,432” while “The smallest 80 percent of farms received 23 percent of CFAP payments, for an average payment of $4,677.” With relief being an unsure thing, egg farmers like Frank Hilliker have had to find other ways to adapt. He lost 60% of his sales when restaurants started closing. Now, like many other farmers, he sells directly to consumers through his roadside stand, often putting purchased eggs directly in someone’s backseat.

In Homestead, Florida, one packing house “opened on weekends for consumer sales and sold more than 120,000 pounds of vegetables,” reports the University of Florida.

Harvie, a company that helps farmers sell their products online, is helping farmers like Chris Duke make $7,000 a week during their slow season. As the pandemic hopefully comes to an end in 2021, many farmers hope that community supported agriculture (CSA) will continue after the pandemic.

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