Editor’s Note: Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, Illinois. He volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Farmers across the United States were already struggling before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now many are at a breaking point. The federal government has offered aid, but it’s only a temporary fix. For farmers to truly survive and thrive, they need the freedom to trade with partners across the globe — without prohibitive tariffs and restrictions standing in the way.
The prices we receive for what we grow had already declined significantly over the last few years thanks to tariffs and disease. Trade wars have put our long-established connections to reliable suppliers and partners at risk. African Swine fever has decimated pork herds across Europe and Asia, obliterating the need for feed like soybeans, which their producers were sourcing from the United States.
But now the coronavirus pandemic has brought a new slate of hurdles for us to overcome. As schools closed across the United States this spring, the food we would have provided for school-lunch programs was no longer needed. The pandemic has also slowed down meat processing since so many workers were getting sick, leaving many farmers with no place to bring the cattle, pigs or chickens they had been feeding that were ready to be harvested. Low oil demand has led to lower fuel costs which helps when we fill our gas tanks but hurts our customers in the ethanol industry. Ethanol is produced from corn, and its use has decreased significantly due to the weakened demand — a result of the recent oil price war and the fact that so many Americans are still staying home.
The entire industry is reshaping itself. In recent years, Americans have gradually come to spend more money eating food outside the home than eating food in their own kitchens. But when restaurants around the country were forced to close their doors, more Americans began cooking their meals at home.
As a result, the food supply chain has had to transform its packaging and delivery. Milk that was packaged in small boxes for school lunches now needs to be packaged in gallon containers that a family will consume together at home. Fresh fruit and vegetables that ripened and were to be delivered to restaurants across the country were left in the fields with no immediate place to go. As the supply chain is forced to change, there has been a surplus of certain food items, forcing some farmers to dump the excess and lose the profit.
All of this has raised concerns that farm bankruptcies will continue to increase.
Some farmers with employees have taken advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program to help them fill some of the financial gaps, and the government has committed to providing another $16 billion in direct payments to farmers. The US House recently passed a $3 trillion federal stimulus package that included special assistance for dairy producers and farmers of specialty crops, like fruit and vegetables. But the US Senate has not taken up this bill, and even if passed, it will not solve the financial challenges faced by food producers.
I appreciate the federal government’s help, but these are only temporary fixes. I firmly believe the US farmer is the most efficient producer of feed grains and livestock in the world. And if we have free and open markets, unimpeded by tariffs and other trade restrictions, I am confident we can profitably feed a more populous world. What we producers really need are functioning and open markets. I want to grow my crops and sell them to willing buyers — wherever they may be. I want to trade.
The coronavirus has taught us all that a lot of things are beyond our control. Yet farming is well within mine — and so I hope to remain in the fields, doing my job at the start of yet another new and confusing season.