While the USDA predicts a positive growth in acres for the 2020 planting season, today’s farmers are entering uncharted territory when it comes to the challenges they are facing. Between last year’s wet and delayed season, to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the US economy and health, there is a lot riding on this year’s crop. In the 2020 Prospective Plantings Report, the USDA predicts 94 million acres of corn for the 2020 season, up eight percent from 2019, and 85 million acres of soybeans, up ten percent. With predicted increase in acres, farmers are working harder than ever to ensure seed gets in the ground in a timely manner, but will these predictions hold true against the weather and COVID-19?
How will the 2019 season affect this year's planting?
After a wet and cool spring made for a challenging 2019 planting season, farmers were left with record high numbers of unplanted acres. Last year’s difficult weather conditions not only affected planting, but also affected crop growth and yield, as well as delayed harvest. With the National Weather Service predicting similar conditions, including above normal precipitation for the 2020 planting months, operations are being proactive and adjusting their planting dates accordingly. Doug Hoag, a farmer in Eastern Iowa, says he “started early this year because of the delayed planting (he had) last year” in hopes to get everything in the ground before the potential increase in precipitation. Hoag plans to complete his planting season by May 6th and has yet to run into any extreme, heavy rains that could delay his schedule any further. While soil conditions have worked well this spring for some farmers like Hoag, other operations have yet to begin getting into fields. Some regions have already struggled with cool soil temperatures and wet conditions, pushing their planting back into May.
COVID-19: are farmers considered at-risk?
With the average age of US agricultural producers being 57.2 years, according to the USDA 2017 Agricultural Census, a large portion of farmers are in the age range that are considered most “at-risk” for COVID-19. Because planting strongly depends on optimal environmental conditions and cannot be delayed due to COVID-19, farmers like Hoag have begun to implement social distancing practices where they can. Since situations often arise that they cannot maintain a six-foot barrier, wearing masks and other protective PPE are helpful in continuing to perform tasks in a timely manner to lessen the economic losses related to delays.
How is COVID-19 affecting the 2020 season?
The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a negative toll on the agricultural industry, but will it continue to become worse? With fewer people on the roads, ethanol demand drops significantly leaving plants idling in the Midwest. Meat industry production slows down, with many plants closing their doors, some indefinitely. Border restrictions leave many U.S. operations with a labor shortage, as around 20% of U.S. agriculture workers come through an H-2A program. These reasons and more have resulted in corn and soybean profit margins to disappear as markets are below production costs, leaving operations in critical financial situations. If farmers start selling land to cover expenses, the number of land sales could increase, especially as older generations of farmers may choose to retire after this year, shifting the agriculture industry to younger numbers.
The worst, most severe cases of the COVID-19 recession could cost the United States up to 3 trillion dollars, according to The Brookings Institution. With many other countries around the world depending on American agriculture, those who work our land are working overtime and planning for an uncertain future to handle these extreme circumstances.