COVID-19 and U.S. Agriculture: A Brief Introduction

June 29, 2020

Brigit Cann interns for the Alliance to End Hunger. She is pursuing an Environmental Studies degree from Oberlin College

In March 2020, the United States began experiencing high, and quickly rising rates of COVID-19. The government response to the virus was to implement stay at home orders in most states, halt a great deal of both international and domestic travel, implement social distancing guidelines, and temporarily close many non-essential businesses. The economic consequences of this shutdown are being felt across sectors and industries. Notably, the food and agriculture industry had to quickly adapt to changing demand and disruptions in the food supply chain. Due to rising hunger rates caused by the health and economic crisis, addressing these disruptions has been difficult but crucial.

International travel bans were implemented in an attempt to slow the global spread of the virus. While for most of us this means avoiding vacations and events abroad for a period of time, for the agriculture industry a travel ban means labor shortages. Much of the agricultural work in the United States is done by seasonal, migrant workers. Many of these workers travel to the United States to farm for a season and then return home to their country of origin. Approximately 20% of farm workers come through the H-2A program. The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows farmers to hire nonimmigrant workers for seasonal work when they expect a shortage in domestic labor. The agriculture industry relies on this program in typical years, but the added complication of domestic workers becoming sick and unable to work made this program even more vital. To address this, Citizenship and Immigration Services made temporary changes to this program. These changes include lifting limitations on agricultural employers and workers; allowing H-2A employers to expedite work related to petitions for visa extensions; and amending regulations to allow H-2A workers to stay in the U.S. beyond 3 years.

The agriculture industry in the U.S. is also learning to adapt to disruptions in the food supply chain. Sudden economic shutdowns in most of the U.S. caused an equally abrupt shift in demand. When restaurants, food services, and school/university dining ceased due to the shutdown, distributors had to adapt by selling their product elsewhere. While demand for food has not changed, the market for it has shifted drastically. Many farmers were accustomed to selling on a larger scale to restaurants and food service companies. The transition to selling their products to supermarkets has been difficult since many farmers and processers did not have the infrastructure to sell their product in retail. Many farmers experienced an unprecedented disconnect in the food supply chain: They had food, there was demand for the food, but they didn’t have the capacity to sell it through retail. Some farmers reluctantly let their produce rot and plowed it into the ground. The added burden of suspended farmers markets was an added gut punch for many smaller local farmers. Smaller farmers are attempting to curb losses in profits in innovative ways, such as selling their products through social media.

The food supply chain has also been impacted by a precipitous decline in transportation. Stay at home orders across the country substantially decreased travel as well as day-to-day mobility for many who transitioned to working from home. The fall in ethanol demand has been difficult for corn farmers. Often overlooked is the fact that ethanol production impacts food production as well. Dried grains, a byproduct of ethanol, is relied on as a feed for livestock. Less ethanol production means less dried grains, leaving livestock farmers scrambling to find cheap alternatives to maintain steady production.

All of these confounding factors and uncertainties are forcing many producers to either reduce their planned output for the year or halt their operations altogether.  The delayed effects of this could be significant. Pausing planting or breeding now does not mean a lack of food now, but it does potentially mean less food when the unplanted crops would be harvested or meat would be slaughtered. Additionally, farmers will likely experience a significant economic burden. As of early June, soybean futures were down 13%, milk futures were down 33%, and hogs were down 30%.

In response to this undeniably difficult situation farmers are experiencing; federal programs are targeting farmers and food producers in various ways. For example, there is a $19 billion relief program helping to support farmers and ranchers throughout the hardships of the current crisis. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) will use funds provided by the CARES and FFCRA acts, providing $16 billion direct funding to farmers and ranchers based on estimated loses, and use $3 billion to work with local distributors whose workforce has been impacted by the virus to purchase fresh produce, dairy, and meat. Further, the federal government is attempting to support farmers and food insecure Americans simultaneously through the distribution of produce boxes sourced from producers across the country. The program provides an easy way for farmers to sell their produce while aiding vulnerable individuals suffering from food insecurity as a result of this pandemic. As of late June, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has distributed approximately $1.2 billion of product through 20 million food boxes.

To support farmers as the pandemic continues there is one major policy that can help the agricultural community and those suffering from hunger.  The Alliance to End Hunger, in collaboration with other national anti-hunger groups, is urging congress to boost the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in future coronavirus response packages.  In addition to the benefits that SNAP provides to household nutrition and finances, it has been estimated that every $1.00 federal investment in SNAP yields more than $1.50 in economic activity – activity that benefits consumers, retailers, and ultimately producers as well.

The impact of COVID-19 on food production and distribution in the United States is significant, but it could take months or even years to measure the true cost to our farmers, ranchers, and others. Our attention to and support for food production in the U.S. is paramount. As with other sectors, we may witness a “new normal” in agriculture following the pandemic, and we will need advocates, elected officials, producers, and consumers to work together on the way forward.