After reaching a “phase one” agreement with China in January, temporarily cooling a heated trade dispute between the United States and one of the largest markets for its crops, farmers like Brian Duncan in Illinois were optimistic.
“No matter if you liked how we got there or not, we felt like we were ready to move forward with some trade,” Duncan told VOA at the Illinois Farm Bureau’s headquarters in Bloomington, where he also serves as vice president of the organization. “Then, obviously, COVID hit in March.”
But even as the U.S. economy shut down in many parts of the country to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, panic was initially hard to find on Scott Halpin’s farm in Grundy County, Illinois.
“Fortunately, we’re just a family farm, and it’s just a few of us so we don’t have a great deal of exposure,” Halpin told VOA during a break in tending to his cows, which roamed the muddy fields behind his barn. “We still have to get up and feed these animals, and they really don’t care if we’ve got COVID-19 or not.”
But the virus reached workers at several meat processing plants throughout the Midwest and quickly spread, curbing production that created a ripple effect through the U.S. food chain, leading to an oversupply of livestock and an undersupply of meat on store shelves.
“The market has fallen off the cliff over the last two weeks,” Duncan told VOA during a Skype interview in April. “Hogs on our farm, the price has dropped 50%.”
The market for soybeans – a key source of feed for livestock -- also tanked along with prices for corn, which when converted to ethanol, is used in gasoline. Demand for fuel plummeted when motorists stayed home to avoid the virus.
Corn is one of Illinois farmer Fred Greider’s key sources of income.
“Every one of my corn acres produces enough fuel for about 80 cars to run on through the year,” he said. “For each car parked, or miles reduced, it directly affects the demand for ethanol, which is the primary use of our corn.”
With a pandemic they could not control or avoid as the backdrop, U.S. farmers endured another year of uncertainty as coronavirus-related supply disruptions created whipsaw market fluctuations that impacted almost every aspect of their livelihood.
As a result, billions in government aid flowed to farmers to help soften the blow of market disruptions caused by shuttering the economy as the virus spread.
While the U.S. is now grappling with the deadliest phase of the pandemic to date, the food supply chain is stable. China is also buying more U.S. crops, fueling optimism – and price increases.
China has “huge needs,” Greider said, “and they’ve exhausted supply in Brazil. Brazil is actually buying some grain from us now to carry them through to their harvest.”
With this year’s harvest complete, farmers are looking at new uncertainty in 2021 as the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden tackles the pandemic, inherits a trade war and installs new agency heads key to farm policy, such as the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who held the post under President Barack Obama, is Biden’s choice for the post.
“To some extent it’s going to be Biden wanting to go back to what he believes would be the successful policies of the Obama administration,” University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said. He added that it won’t be easy, or practical, for the incoming Biden administration to undo some of the policies enacted under President Donald Trump.
“They have to combine the old with the new and deal with today’s reality,” Hagle said.
It’s a reality that many farmers who might not have voted for Biden are coming to terms with.
“I hope this administration, like any administration, would look out for rural America,” farmer Duncan said. “I would look for more trade deals, biofuel usage, economic stability, a farm bill that provides an economic backstop. All those things I’m hopeful we’ll get, it’s just too soon to know, but I’m hopeful for the best.”