Pandemic a challenge for local farmers

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Mark Schwenk of Jasper sprays weed killer on a field that will be used to grow soybeans in Jasper on Thursday. Schwenk said the coronavirus has not directly impacted his soybean farming process, but if it does, the biggest impact will be after the harvest when he sells the beans. “Time will tell what’s going to happen,” he said.

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

As the novel coronavirus wreaks havoc worldwide, local farmers are not immune to its reach.

Ken Eck of Dubois County Purdue Extension explained that the pandemic presents yet another hurdle that those in the agriculture industry must face.

Not all will be able to clear it.

“In general, the COVID-19 pandemic has further stressed already precarious economic situations on local Dubois County farms,” Eck wrote in an email. “Several years of low crop and livestock returns have exhausted any financial reserves most farms may have had, and the recent further drop in prices is adding to the dilemma.”

Both falling agriculture commodity prices and a decline in the U.S. economy have farmers “very concerned,” he explained. In some cases, Eck has spoken with farmers who have said “they’re abandoning some farm rental properties simply because farming it in the short term would actually cost them more money than not farming it,” Eck wrote.

He explained that American farmers are among the most productive in the world. They produce enough food, fuel and fiber to satisfy not only the needs of the United States, but also the needs of nations around the world.

Even before the virus began to spread, though, they were already fighting for their livelihoods. Livestock prices had dropped due to disease and import concerns in some animals in China, Eck wrote, which in turn led to less Chinese need for U.S. corn and soybeans.

At the same time, farmers had very good yields. International trade wars with China, however, further cut the foreign country’s need for soybeans, and all this resulted in lower livestock and crop prices for the last few years.

“Estimates predicted a slow increase in prices for 2020, but that all disappeared with the on-set of the COVID-19,” Eck explained, noting how American farmers were just beginning to pick up livestock markets due to low Chinese production. This also meant that excess American grain would be used to feed the animals, which would have subsequently driven up grain prices slightly as well.

Most farmers purchased their fertilizer, pesticide and either corn or soybean seed in December for both planning and tax reasons. With COVID-19 concerns coming after that time, Eck wrote, “most are progressing as normal with the 2020 planting season.”

“Each year there is a different concern with which our local farmers (excess rain/floods; temperatures; trade concerns; livestock disease concerns; etc.) that they take in stride as well as they financially and mentally can handle them, and they are usually able to keep on farming,” Eck wrote. “Just an unfortunate way of life.”

Still, he believes the pandemic will be “a final nail in the coffin for some local farms.”

It is causing wide swings in markets due to changes in food supply chains, he wrote, “so with folks at home a larger part is going through grocery stores although the supply system hasn’t been able to switch over yet.” Hoarding has affected what people buy, Eck explained, with folks not wanting as much fresh produce or sometimes meat because they cannot store it for long periods of time.

A stable market environment allows for an easier use of what is produced, and the current pandemic environment is causing a lot of food to go to waste.

“The pandemic is just again one of many concerns that pop up each farming year,” Eck reiterated. “In general, farmers for the last several years have been running in the red due to low commodity prices and have exhausted any ‘rainy day’ funds they may have had from more profitable years with some retiring earlier than expected or renting farms/abandoning rental [fields] to other farmers.”




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