By Aimee Robinette
Farming has never been an easy endeavor. It comes with many seen and unseen complications and a plethora of possibilities.But this year, agriculture is facing one of its most unusual years in recent memory. With the introduction of a novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, farmers are dealing with more than just the average of what Mother Nature can dish.
Of course earlier this year, everything was off to a good start as Alex Deason, Extension Agent II with Mississippi State University Extension Service, notes.
“In January, we saw a historic moment when the president of the United States formally signed the Phase One trade deal with China,” says Deason. “During this time the USMCA, the trade deal between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, was also being finalized. This optimism for worldwide agricultural trade had the markets trending upward for a few weeks. That is until the global pandemic struck. Since then, we have seen not only the commodity markets fall but also other worldwide traded stocks fall. All of the concerns were linked to unknown factors.”
COVID-19 has affected numerous facets in agriculture.
“There have been multiple changes in all aspects of agriculture including everyone’s day-to-day business. Policies and procedures have been changed at banks, retailers, restaurants and even at home. With the digital age some of this work load has been removed,” says Deason. “Multiple aspects of business are able to be conducted over the phone or computer allowing both sides to continue to do their part in feeding and clothing the world. Another big hurdle that is having to be navigated is labor. Nationally, some of agriculture labor is outsourced as H-2A labor that comes from participating countries. When this virus became a global pandemic, these applications were suspended until the matter is resolved.”
Deason says that has left farmers around the country trying to find experienced, local labor to fill the void in a short notice.
“Another concern is that the supply chain not keeping up with demand. With many transportation companies changing policies or services they provide, the question remains what will be the long-term impact of accessing needed inputs in a timely manner,” he adds. “Lastly, the average age of the American farmer is now defined as an at-risk population for the virus. This puts further stress on an already stressful occupation.”
In addition to COVID-19, planting time is not so cut and dry.
“So, the 2020 planting intentions report had corn up eight percent, soybeans up eleven percent, cotton down seven percent, and rice up over twenty percent,” says Deason. “This generally shows you where the pressure is being felt in the market and where the market where eventually go to find relief. However, during a perfect year our local corn crop gets planted roughly from the 25th of March to the 15th of April. Even though there is going science to back later planting of irrigated corn there are some management decisions about other crops that tend to stop the corn planting around that date. Therefore, some of those intended corn acres will more than likely move into another crop adding pressure on that commodities market.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Prospective Plantings report released late March estimates that growers intend to plant 4.06 million total acres of row crops in Mississippi this year. This includes approximately 1.85 million acres of soybeans, 710,000 acres of corn, 660,000 acres of cotton, 620,000 acres of hay, 150,000 acres of rice and 20,000 acres of peanuts. Those estimates in the USDA Prospective Planting reports are primarily based on surveys conducted the first two weeks of March.
Deason says Mother Nature always holds back progress for periods of time, but with the advancements in technology, equipment and genetics farmers have been able to combat fewer and smaller planting windows to get a crop in the ground. “The tricky part is making a sound decision on the front end and for the most part it has been done year after year.”
According to the extension service, as was the case in 2019, rain and flooding during wintertime and planting season are issues that producers face this year in addition to market volatility. Another extremely wet winter has delayed planting progress of corn, typically the first row crop planted in Mississippi each year.
“Most areas are ten to twenty inches of rainfall above normal through March. This is keeping fields wet and substantially restricting opportunity for field work and corn planting, especially in the Delta where we once again have backwater flooding,” says MSU Extension grain crops agronomist Erick Larson. “Despite that, we have planted a few acres in select areas, primarily in central and south Mississippi, but overall progress is about a week behind normal.”
While COVID-19 will affect farmers, the thought is still that economics and weather will continue to be the driving forces in crop selection.