We’ve gotten enough distance from the early days of the pandemic that farm conference speakers have started looking back on how the ag industry fared.
Their verdict, and mine: Food producers held up better than it might have seemed at the time.
That’s a big deal considering just how ominous April was.
Milk was being dumped in huge volumes, ripe produce was being destroyed on the farm because its market had vaporized, and national media were biting their fingernails over a possible meat shortage.
“We were there in a moment when, quite frankly, if we’re honest with each other, we weren’t really sure what was going to happen,” Pennsylvania Ag Secretary Russell Redding said last week in a dairy industry meeting.
At the same time, people were dying of COVID-19 and losing their jobs at an alarming rate.
Schoolchildren were cooped up at home, often with parents struggling to get their internet straightened out so they could work remotely.
And many of the small pleasures, from eating out to watching live sports, that would normally compensate for those stresses were off the table.
“Sometimes it’s not so fun to live through history,” Christopher Wolf, a Cornell University economist, said last week at a virtual meeting of dairy processors.
But just when the food industry seemed to be teetering on the edge of the cliff, something incredible happened.
Instead of collapsing, the supply chain adapted.
Milk dumping calmed down, and dairy cases today are once again well stocked.
Some produce growers found new opportunities in the retail market.
And after a couple weeks of meager meat availability at some grocery stores, big meatpackers were able to reopen with improved worker safety measures. In the meantime, the local meat supply chain picked up part of the slack.
In short, food production didn’t careen into a death spiral. It soldiered on.
Now maybe some doomsayers blew the disruptions out of proportion. Blame sensationalist city journalists and people who never liked global supply chains if you must.
The fact remains that the United States never had a shortage of edible farm products this spring.
The fruited plain, the land of milk and honey, still teemed with livestock. Crops were still in storage and still got planted.
That’s the virtue of having a vast country with lots of arable land, a sophisticated and efficient group of farmers working that land, and businesses and governments eager to support those farmers.
In the months to come, we will keep adapting to the pandemic. Federal aid to farmers and strategic thinking by processors will be a big part of that.
True, the lost revenue, the ballooning federal deficit, the continuing virus deaths, the emotional toll of it all — those problems will still be there.
Agricultural markets are not where many farmers would like them to be, and plenty of our neighbors are in a tough place financially.
We have no choice but to keep riding the waves because the storm isn’t over.
“Definitely, my discussion here is not a post-mortem. ...” Wolf told the dairy processors. “It would be fantastic if we had a vaccine tomorrow and we could just put this all behind us, but we certainly haven’t yet.”
For now, though, we can at least say that American farmers have passed the first hurdle of the pandemic, and that experience will make our industry better prepared for whatever may come next.