Herd Check

Standing amidst the ruins – 10 predictions for post-COVID agriculture

Crisis. There’s no better word to describe the current situation of the agricultural economies. We were hurting for a long time, limping along as many voices cried out about how broken the supply chain really was. But now we are truly in a crisis. And there’s no going back to simply “the way it was before.”

Helplessness is a powerful feeling, especially in an industry that once prided itself on values like independence and self-sufficiency. Sadly, the food system necessary to maintain modern life doesn’t allow for that kind of agricultural world anymore. Not only does the helplessness hurt, it’s that an already wounded world has no idea how deeply we as agriculturalists feel our industries collapsing around us. Instead, they question why we can’t donate our dump milk, butcher our own hogs, birds and cattle, or sell commodities direct to consumers.

No. 10 There will be increasing distrust in big suppliers from consumers and producers. Were we set up to fail?

The relationship between food security and production system in America seems paradoxical at the moment. Individuals are rushing to grocery stores to fill their shelves and freezers, wary of life in quarantine. Millions are out of work thereby utilizing food banks in droves so that organizations can hardly keep up with the demands. Yet at the same time, farmers are destroying crops, livestock, and animal products in the likes we’ve never seen before.

As restaurants, commercial food suppliers, and schools have closed or cut back, a disproportionate part of the buyer’s market was slashed instantaneously. Not to mention, less travel has cut back on demands for ethanol consumption. But an even bigger component was the fact that the handful of the big packers and distributors (DFA is the dairy co-op who owns about a third of the country’s milk market and around 50 processors provide around 98% of the meat on store shelves) simply cannot run on skeleton crews as plants close due to coronavirus. This type of consolidation has left an otherwise efficient, cost-effective food system dangerously subject to massive failure. Think about it, if it wasn’t coronavirus causing this massive upstaging, it would’ve been something else at one point or another.

Producers and consumers are loudly voicing their disgust at the situation, saying that such a downfall was inevitable.

Temple Grandin did an excellent job summarizing why the shift to big wasn’t bad in and of itself, but it was very fragile all along. She writes

That’s important now more than ever, because everything is bigger. When I first started my career as a designer of cattle handling systems in the early 1970s, the meat supply chain was more diversified with many smaller packing plants. In the city of Denver, there were several slaughterhouses and Los Angeles even had a whole row of companies on a single street. Each one of these plants processed 500 to 1,000 cattle per day.

But almost all of these smaller, independent plants have now closed. What drove these packers out of business was the transformation of the entire industry in the 1980s from selling retailers carcasses to packing and shipping meat in boxes. Most of these independents were located in major cities. There was no room to build the additions required for all the extra cutting and they couldn’t afford to build new plants outside the city. It ushered in an era of closures and acquisitions. And today the big companies are running plants that are really massive: a single plant may process 2,000 to 6,000 cattle per day if it runs two shifts. A large, double-shifted pork plant may process 20,000 pigs per day.

Because today’s system is so concentrated – and slaughter and processing is done in fewer, larger plants – the pandemic we’re facing has overwhelmed this supply chain. There is an old saying “do not put all of your eggs in one basket.” When a supply chain becomes more concentrated, there is greater loss of supply when a single plant is closed. A Tyson beef plant in Kansas closed last year due to a fire, and it did cause some production disruptions, but other plants ran Saturday shifts to compensate. The supply chain was able to compensate for the temporary closure of a single large plant.

No. 9 America will rely more heavily on global importation

To say COVID-19 added salt to an already wounded agriculture economy would be a massive understatement. To say it ripped its bare, dirty fingers into a gaping wound, smothered it with flesh-eating bacteria-infected dirt, then hacked a limb off for good measure would be more far more accurate.

Truth is, many differing domestic agricultural economies across several industries were already hurting. As of early April,  dairy prices dropped 26-36%, corn futures dropped 14%, soybean futures were down 8% and cotton futures plummeted 31%. Hog futures were down 31% and cattle prices to ranchers at a 25% loss.

Part of this can be contributed to globalism, including places like China, the Middle East, and Africa building or expanding their own dairy industries. Likewise, South America still leads the charge on animal agriculture with JBS, one of the Big Four beef packers being Brazilian and American growers still fighting for country of origin labeling.

Not to mention, the change in production and processing ability has limited some byproduct feed ingredients in the rations of many livestock producers, which puts another indefinite kink in the grand machine. Fresh produce is in a similar circumstance, and with their demands backing up they cannot afford to hire workers to harvest produce that is unable to be sold and processed, and the result is a heartbreaking amount of edible food disked under or left to rot.

To put it bluntly, everyone is a loser here. On the international scale, we are already seeing the very early beginnings of less exports to other nations and more imports to compensate for our lack of food processing ability. Meaning countries like Brazil, Mexico and even Namibia are scheduled to fill in the gaps. The reality is already here, it’s chilling, frustrating and even depressing in the most real sense of the word.

No. 8 People will awaken to how dependent they are on food production and distribution

I think the obvious deserves to be stated, especially before the ignorant folks who want to spout off the “why can’t greedy farmers just dona-” go off.

In America, and the rest of the first world, for that matter, is simply not set up for a primarily farm to consumer system. That’s evident by the backup of local butchers and massive monocultures of crops far too enormous to tackle. I believe the reason this is an issue is extremely multi-faceted, but I believe it can be summarized into two basic categories.

The first is food processing. We’ve become a society SO dependent on our food being processed for us, be it a simple wash and packaging or a full out system of harvest, refining, processing into raw ingredients and then processed into a finished boxed ready-to-eat product. Part of this is the sheer scale that things must be done on anymore. Everyone wants to have out of season produce year round. Everyone wants easy prep or grab and go type meals. We want the ease of picking something of the shelf and on we go about our day. The inputs to make that happen are simply unfathomable to the average consumer. And people are just now awakening to that fact.

The second part to this is really an extension to the first point. It’s that people no longer have the knowledge or the means to properly and safely do their own food processing, preservation and consumption by themselves anymore. More than ever, people are honestly acknowledging this, which leads directly into prediction no. 7…

No. 7 There will be a rise in home economy hobbies and backyard homesteading

I touched on some of this in my recent AGDAILY article. There has been a noticeable rise in people ordering backyard chickens, ordering sides of beef or pork from local butchers and, I’d imagine, we can expect to see higher than average seed sales.

In fact, we’ve already seen the quarantine doldrums forcing people to take up new hobbies, and gardening is certainly a big one according to USAToday. Every time there is some sort of global panic, that lizard brain seems to kick in telling us we need to be self-sufficient if we’re going to be among the survivors. I’m optimistic this interest might at least give some credence to the hardworking and unpredictability of commercial type farming.

No. 6 The movement for local economies and food suppliers will skyrocket

We’ve already heard this discussed ad nauseam in several applications. The hip little farmer’s market has been a big to-do for Millennials and Zoomers alike. Terms like “local” “sustainable” “ethical” and “zero-waste” have been gaining notoriety for awhile now, thriving alongside our many other first-world interests. But now instead of being a luxury, these are gaining interest as potential pieces to economic survivability.

Federal, state and local government has been advocating for the support of small businesses in the face of quarantine, broken supply chains and temporary closures. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone very much opposed to this, and it’s been expressed in the form of grants, bailouts, online ordering and carryouts. Coupled with an already hurting economy, and mixed feelings towards globalism, it just makes sense to keep those dollars circulating locally.

Not to mention, local butchers are so slammed many are booked much farther in advance than usual. Stories abound of local butchers donating meat, working around the clock, and doing all in their power to keep the supply flowing.

Also worth mentioning, local food production certainly isn’t in the best interest of all individuals. It is more expensive, less efficient and lacks distributive power. But if the arm of this sector of the food chain could be strengthened and given more power, I think it could be a successful complement to our larger corporations. But maybe I’m a bit too much of a dreamer.

No. 5 Those who can afford on-farm processing and distribution will thrive

This isn’t going to be a pretty one to recover from. The healing processes will be slow, painful and even gory at times. We will lose even more agriculturalists than we already have, which pains me to even type out. But this is also a ripe situation for entrepreneurs, revolutionaries and the beginnings of a food system evolution. If, and only if, the right individuals are capable of taking advantage.

The situation is ripe for those gifted to be able to process, sell and do retail on their own terms. With all the emphasis local, state and federal government has placed on the importance of keeping your dollars local, there could be nothing better. Unfortunately, years of buildup to the mass production scale of agriculture has simply made such establishments very few and far in between due to financial, distribution, legal and processing barriers.

But we do know for those that can do it, they will make it. Just look at Whoa Nellie Dairy who was seen not only on the ag side of the web, but the mainstream as well, standing as a symbol of hope and the ingenuity of American agriculture.

In a nutshell, I believe those who have already been vested in their own processing and sales and those who create their own startups will not have any shortage in very willing buyers immediately into the distant future.

No. 4 The industry will get even smaller with slower growth rates

The decline of the farmer is nothing new. Now, when we need reliable food production more than ever, we can expect to lose many more producers. I think by the year’s end the numbers will have revealed themselves, but the reality is there that many individuals who were just surviving on the thin line may now realize that they will be the generation to lose the farm.

Hard decisions are upon us, and while we hope for better days ahead, this is the make or break time for those to hang on until that happens. And, unfortunately, a lot will simply be unable to do that. Dairy farmers have been told to cut milk production by as much as 20% and hog litters are being aborted. Edible crops are tilled under and the futures market is in disarray.

Let’s not forget about higher education either. As Universities were blindsided by unexpected closures and delays, vital research has also taken a hit. From funding to student labor to trials, Progressive Farmer did a nice article summarizing the concerns. This also leads me to wonder about the future security of our land grant universities and attracting students to a struggling industry in a challenging financial time.

No. 3 Livestock markets will be persecuted

This is a big one. There’s already been so much backlash against foreign wet markets due to the shady origins of the virus. This is a very controversial subject to be sure, and I’m not sure a satisfactory answer will ever be reached. But it is safe to say this has launched a massive blow against the roles and safety of animal consumption and agriculture as a whole.

Yep, that’s right, livestock sales are next in line on the chopping block. It’s only a natural progression, and vegan activists are certainly eating up the opportunity to extend their smear campaigns even further. I’ve seen their posts littering social media in the midst of the pandemic pointing the fingers and crying that veganism, alas, is our only permanent cure for every and any public health crisis. As to be expected I suppose. And, as COVID will remain with us for some time, it does concern me that this will be a difficult one to regain traction as we strive to spread facts over fear. All I can say for now is remain vigilant, because it will be getting worse.

No. 2 In an effort to respond to the present situation, we will have an actual shortage in the future

Alright, so this one is a bit murky to foresee with a pinpoint accuracy, but I think the situation is certainly imaginable. What we are seeing right now is food insecurity here in the states, not a true food shortage. But in some first world countries, the virus has actually hit their food supply in the gut due to transportation, import and export restrictions. Check out this article on what’s happening in Sub-Saharan Africa if you care to.

Right now, we are scrambling with what to do with a system that isn’t working in this sort of crisis. Meanwhile, other countries are already thinking about how global food insecurity will look not too far down the road given the current and hypothetical situation. AgriFood-Tech is an Israeli company already looking at automated solutions considering the global food supply workforce is still in very real danger of being further quarantined for infected. And remember, that “second wave” prediction is still around. Make of it what you will.

No. 1 The food system will be more politicized and regulated than ever before

As much as I hate to admit it, agriculture is becoming an increasingly political game. And as the saying goes, you never want a good crisis to go to waste. So of course this is going to stir up all the political crazies, and you know that panicked citizens are always willing to support or at least lend power to those who don’t have anyone’s best interest at hand.

Do you know Senator Booker along with supporters such as Elizabeth Warren are want to phase out “factory farming” by 2040? It directly seeks to target the big players who failed to sustain the system such as Tyson, Cargill, JBS, Smithfield, etc. and particularly has the sites set on CAFOs.

And yes, we’ve discussed the error of putting our food system into the hands of a few. But we also recognize the critical role they play in the distribution and affordability of food in the modern age. Cracking down on policies, regulations and indirectly dolling out punishments isn’t the solution to any of this. And if you think this kind of political hardball is only for the big guys and no one would ever possibly come after you, humble little farmer you are, you’re having a pipe dream.

Booker says he supports the “independent family farmers” but whatever does that mean? Does it exclusively mean the minuscule number of producers who are blessed enough to have all the resources, financial backing, distribution and marketing capabilities to 100% produce, process, package and sell their commodities? Do families who rely on contract agreements, distributors, retailers and middlemen not deserve protection as well? If CAFO and “factory farm” are your only definitions, I would think not.

And this, I sense, is only the tip of the iceberg. Or perhaps a whole frozen sea we can easily expect to encounter two, five, ten plus years down the road.

These predictions are worth about as much as my opinion. (Remember, an opinion and a few bucks can get you a coffee. An opinion by itself might gain you a bit of praise or a slap in the face, and little more than that.) But I think it is fair to say, if any of these hold true or not, there is no going back to the exact world we knew. What can happen is the changes can be for better or for worse, based on how the individuals who make up this wild and wonderful ag world respond. Stay safe, stay vigilant, and keep it rural my friends.

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