Like many industries, American agriculture has taken a major hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the CEOs of the nation's top 20 agriculture organizations want the presidential candidates to take notice.
A 12-page briefing paper sent to President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden outlines key issues in agriculture for which the candidates should pay heed. Neither the CEOs nor the Ag CEO Council, an ad-hoc group, endorse one candidate over another.
The briefing paper points out that the economic health of U.S. agriculture is poor "and deteriorating," a result of low commodity and livestock prices and shifting demands as a result of the pandemic. That could lead to a decline in net farm income in 2020 of $3 billion, and net cash losses of $18 billion, even with federal support. The paper points to trade retaliation, non-tariff trade barriers, devaluation in foreign currency, all of which have made ag products less competitive, both globally and domestically, and weather disasters, including hurricanes, wildfires, floods and drought.
The economic woes also include poor broadband service in many rural areas and increased opioid abuse, along with limited healthcare resources. A critical shortage of "legally authorized and experienced" workers exacerbates the problem, the paper indicated.
COVID-19 also has created problems within the supply chain, the council CEOs wrote. It has resulted in shifting consumption patterns from 650,000 restaurants, take-out and catering services, 40,000 grocery stores, and interrupted processing of foods and biofuels. In the livestock industry, the pandemic has forced the euthanization of pigs and poultry and dumping perishable fruit, vegetables and dairy products. The pandemic also reduced the demand for oil, biofuel, clothing and textiles, impacting the demand for cotton.
Greg Brophy, a former state senator and farmer in Wray, commented on the impact the pandemic has had on biofuels, especially ethanol, which is made with corn. A year ago, the USDA's bi-annual survey of farmers noted the price of corn for Colorado farmers at $3.95 per bushel. Brophy said with the pandemic the price had dropped down earlier this year to $3.22, which he attributed to the pandemic and with people driving a lot less. Corn is second only to hay in Colorado, with a production value of $631.6 million. A drop of just 73 cents per bushel reduces the production value by about $158 million.
The council did sound a positive note for the future of ag, which it called bright, especially for its hopes for a more diverse and inclusive next generation of farmers. The council paper said the next generation will be one that roots out racism and addresses the biases and prejudice that creates hardship and which blocks opportunity for people of color. Agribusiness and production ag can play a major role "in leading positive change that creates a more just and equitable society," the paper said.
The farmers of the future, the council wrote, will need to be diverse, highly skilled and hardworking. "Our investment in the young, beginning, racially diverse, veterans, woman and minority farmers is essential," especially given that the average age of today's farmers is 57.5 years.
The paper identified 10 priorities for ag in the next four years and beyond. Number one on the list: a COVID-19 vaccine and testing. The pandemic "awakened Americans to the realization that stocked grocery store shelves should not be taken for granted," the council paper said. The ag industry has adapted, including changing its supply chains, shifting production to make hand sanitizer, for example, or cotton manufacturers producing PPE.
A vaccine, along with widespread testing and PPE products and a plan to address future pandemics will restore consumer confidence and "reestablish restaurant and institutional demand."
Other priorities include trade agreements, biofuels, research, rural broadband, labor, infrastructure and competitive modes of transportation, and nutrition and health. Farm policy is another core issue in the next four years, given that the Farm Bill will be up for renewal in 2023.
Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president for Colorado Farm Bureau, told Colorado Politics that Colorado farmers and ranchers rely heavily on trade, which is why the ratification of USMCA was so important. "Colorado exports between $2 billion and $3 billion of agricultural products to Canada and Mexico, making the two nations Colorado’s largest agriculture trading partners, Vorthmann said. "Maintaining these trade agreements are vital to the future of the industry as a whole."
On the issue of labor, Vorthmann said agriculture is a unique industry and the skilled labor that farmers and ranchers utilize doesn’t fit neatly into a box. "That’s why it’s so important that as Colorado discusses policy on issues like paid medical leave, work requirements, pay and other benefits, the rules and regulations must address the industry’s unique needs."
Another core issue: sustainability and climate, one that has sometimes pitted the ag industry against environmentalists.
Chris Novak, president of CropLife, the trade association for the agrochemical industry, told Colorado Politics they are hopeful that the next administration will look at the benefits from pesticides and the sound science behind them. "There's a reason we've developed these products," Novak said, to control pests such as mosquitoes, fleas and ticks, to control weeds in agriculture and to increase productivity, which in turn can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "If there's a scientific commitment, people can see agriculture as a part of a solution to climate and a part of sustainably producing our food supply in the future."
Vorthmann added that farmers and ranchers are careful stewards of natural resources, "especially here in Colorado where water is so very precious. Without agriculture, people don’t eat. That’s why legislation and orders that come from the state government that punish the industry are not helpful. We’re all a part of the solution."
The council paper said that agriculture is responsible for 9.9% of greenhouse gas emissions, and that ag producers are working to mitigate impacts to a changing climate.
That includes programs such as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program, defined as using the right fertilizer sources at the right rate at the right time and in the right place. In Illinois, for example, the paper said a corn farm in Illinois reduced costs from $24 per acre to $16, increased yields and achieved a 34.7% reduction in carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions.
In the livestock industry, producers are improving storage and application of manure for better use of nutrients to both grow crops and produce renewable energy.
The CEO Ag Council represents national producer organizations in wheat, corn, cotton, soybean, sorghum, milk, beef, pork, produce, rice and sugar beets, as well as the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Fertilizer Institute, the Farm Credit Council, American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union.