The disruptive impact of the new pandemic on the American agricultural system has been broad and varied. Farmers expect several years of trying production and rough market conditions. While in 2017 and 2018, several hurricanes thumped U.S farms; 2019 has dramatically led American farmers to inferior planting conditions, and retaliatory taxes reduced the potential for our agricultural commodities compared to 2017.
In 2020, consumers and farmers have managed household budgets and planning production at a time when markets – labour, food, energy, commodity- are being shaken by global, national and regional slowdowns, shutdowns, and general uncertainty. Such impacts to American and global economies have influenced both the demand and supply for food in the U.S and the rest of the world, bringing along localized and short-term shortages in the U.S, especially in livestock products like meat, while U.S farmers have to face, for instance, excess milk supplies in other areas.
Generally, U.S food prices have increased dramatically since January while prices received by U.S producers have dropped. But while upsurging retail and wholesale food costs and some temporarily vacant shelves brought a lot of public attention and stoked concerns over affordability and availability of our food, the crushing impacts of the crisis on U.S farmers have been way less noticeable.
Thousands Have Applied for Federal Coronavirus Relief
The rapid progress of COVID-19 at home and abroad and constant shutdown of parts of the economy has led to simultaneously, and unprecedented supply and demand shock to the food system.
Crude oil prices, which started 2020 at $61.18 per barrel, shortly traded negative for the first time ever in April. At the same time, grocery store retail increased sharply while sales at drinking places and food service throughout March and April were $47.5 billion lesser than during the same period in 2019.
Such consequences were immediate and severe for farmers and their families. For instance, the curtailment in miles driven as the public sheltered in place brought less demand for biofuels, which also led to reduced demand used in biofuel, especially corn. What’s more, the immediate and radical decline in food demand by hotel customers, isolated farmers, restaurants and food processors from some of their biggest buyers, especially, dairy, meat, and specialty crops.
This made thousands of Missouri farmers rely on federal coronavirus relief. Todd Hays’s family, a farmer from Monroe City, is an example of such. They’ve been farming for seven generations, but the prevailing pandemic has caused problems in the farming industry that his family has never faced. Todd is now one of tens of thousands of Missouri farmers who have required federal support funding to face tremendous financial losses caused by the pandemic.
A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri shows us that the net income for farmers is likely to drop $20 billion in 2020. Not only that, but crop prices as well, are expected to decrease by 10% and prices of livestock by as much as 12%.
Mr Hays is a livestock farmer. So when the COVID-10 hit Missouri, the plants that normally process his dairy or livestock products diminished their capacity by as much as 50-75, which means that plants are now facing an overproduction. Dairy products such as milk, which can be produced within a few days will need to be thrown away, says Mr Hays. And as farmers slash down their livestock, they must send it to a plant as soon as possible, otherwise, it will spoil.
As of July 2020, more than 31, 000 Missouri farmers have been enlisted for the national Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, meant to provide up to $16 billion in direct payment to U.S ranchers and farmers impacted by the pandemic.
These funds have gone to dairy, cattle and row crop producers as well as specialty crop producers who have suffered from supply chain disruption and reduced commodity price to due pandemic.
How Rethinking Our Farming System Could Prevent the Crisis?
Healthy soils lead to healthy humans. Our current agricultural practices which consist of extensive use of fertilizers, monocultures, herbicide and pesticide, has caused a considerable loss of biodiversity, has reduced soil quality and has polluted the environment. But there is a clear divide in practices towards future agriculture. While organic farmers rely on natural methods such as humic acid, polycultures, composting, and mixed farming with livestock and crops, technologists rely entirely on a tech-centric approach.
Although these two camps don’t actually have too much in common, the solution for both the environment and humanity lies somewhere in the middle – tech-enhanced permaculture.
Our industrialized way of life and modern agriculture, centred on highly specialized and scalable methods, are core drivers of these changes. Our food is getting less nutrient-rich and is contaminated by herbicides and pesticides and fungicides. Since it’s becoming quite obvious that our current approach is highly destructive – farmers need to look for a more sustainable way to nourish a global population and permaculture seems the right solution worth considering.
Permaculture here isn’t just an organic approach – it’s a philosophy that teaches producers and farmers everywhere respect for the environment and a reflective approach towards food and modern capitalist consumption, food and locality more in touch with nature. Permaculture is a safer alternative to our current agricultural practices, and its goals are to nourish our foods while increasing soil quality by adding humus.
Tech alone will not solve the issues of our environment. That's why increasingly more farmers and food producers see this holistic approach as a solution to this uncertainty. Decisions around where we buy our food, and the quantity and quality we choose, are imperative. That’s why seasonal and regional purchasing habits could considerably slow down our expenses – with the savings being used to pay reasonable prices for organic food, motivating a sustainable agricultural revolution.
The federal support together with some recent surges in exports of some agricultural commodities, might have provided some relief in the farming sector. Still, until we reconsider our current farming practices so we can dodge this uncertainty, it’s hard to tell whether the rough times are over for farmers or more still lie ahead.