by Bryant M. Spivey
Johnston County Extension Director
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have made some adjustment to our daily routines. No more eating out at restaurants, no sports events, concerts, school, traditional church services, and the list goes on and on. This change is critical and necessary to protect public health and to limit the spread of coronavirus. Perhaps one of the least changed professions during this time has been farming. Agriculture is, of course, deemed as an essential industry for the obvious reason that it provides food, fiber, and other resources that are essential to human life and existence.
So what would be the ramifications if there was a disruption in farming for just 45 days? First of all, even though I have worked my entire career in agriculture, I am probably not really qualified to answer such a question. The implications would be far reaching beyond just what occurs day-to-day on the farm. Farming is essentially a production business in the supply chain. Farmers take resources and inputs and produce commodities, goods, and sometimes services that are then passed on to packers, processors, manufacturers, wholesalers, grocery stores, restaurants, and then ultimately to the consumer. Ultimately, our food system is quite complex and well developed.
Some activities on the farm are seasonal, while some are not. In the livestock, dairy, and poultry industries, animals must be provided for every day. On a dairy farm, cows must be milked multiple times every day, seven days per week, 365 days per year and the facilities that process the milk products must do the same. While I am again not a dairy expert, cows that are not milked will rapidly face major health concerns due to mastitis and other infections. A farmer cannot simply stop milking cows. Milk can move from the cow to the store in as little as 2 days. Therefore, if farmers stop milking cows, it would be a matter of days until there was no milk in the store. Milk is, of course, only one dairy product with others including butter, cheese, yogurt, and that great dairy product called ice cream.
So if all of these products stopped coming for 45 days, we could just restart on day 46 and there would be milk in the grocery store, right? Well, no. It is just not that simple. Dairy farming requires managing cows year-long to produce a steady supply of milk. Cows are bred, give birth, and subsequently give milk. It is not a process that can just be halted for even a few days without major herd health problems. Therefore, the disruption in dairy products could easily extend for months.
With seasonal activities like crop production, the scenario of a break in production would play out much differently. If the break occurred in our area in November and December, the impact would be very limited. However, if the break occurs in April and May, it could mean a year with highly reduced production. Most of our production of crops is timed around making the best use of our frost-free period. For us, that occurs on average from April 15th through mid to late October. During this period, we harvest winter annual crops like wheat, plant summer annual crops, and harvest those same crops through November. This growing season is typical for most of the United States, with northern states having shorter growing seasons and those further south having longer growing seasons.
Grain crops produced in our summer growing season, like corn and soybeans, are the major portion of the ration for feeding cattle, hogs, and poultry. So if we do not grow the grain, we cannot produce the meat. Protein would quickly be a problem in the diet of Americans and others throughout the world.
Agriculture has faced disasters before, but in my career we have never faced anything like COVID-19. Disasters for agriculture have typically been localized. A late freeze that damages tree fruits or winter wheat normally occurs in only a portion of the country. A hurricane or flood typically affects a few states or even just a portion of a state. With a more typical disaster, food can be sourced from those regions that were unaffected or affected to a lesser degree and thereby the problems are mitigated. A widespread disaster could cause major issues to our food supply.
Now that I have gone down the proverbial rabbit trail, let me provide some reassurance; farmers have not stopped working. Farming is a great industry and occupation that can proceed while observing social distancing. Most of the news of major problems is coming from our large urban centers. These are not the typical areas where production agriculture is hard at work. Farmers are diligent and tough. If not, they would never survive the many challenges that they face. Each year farmers face uncertain conditions. The farmers of our county, state, and nation are hard at work each and every day trying to maintain production of food and fiber that our people need. As long as there is a market for the goods they produce, at a profitable margin, farmers will be engaged in this pursuit. Farmers bring a great deal of problem solving skills to their daily work and they always find a way to persevere.
As long as there are dedicated American Farmers, the general public can rest easy that there will be food. It is in times like these that we often stop to think about the things in life that are really important. In recent days, we have been concerned about face masks, respirators, hospital gowns, doctors, and hospital beds. In some cases, we are sourcing these items from other countries. I have always known it is important that we grow and produce the bulk of our own food in America. I hope you realize that as well and always support the American Farmer, even when COVID-19 is a memory.