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Editorial: Pandemic offers lessons for ag

Editorial: Pandemic offers lessons for ag

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It might seem premature to think deeply about COVID-19’s economic impacts on Nebraska when this pandemic isn’t over.

But those first weeks after the coronavirus reached us in mid-March rocked Nebraska agriculture in ways our state’s leaders, academics and research think tanks are beginning to take into account.

An early summary was released last week as a joint venture of Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Platte Institute. “Disruptions from COVID-19 on Nebraska’s Agriculture” can be read in full on the latter’s website at platteinstitute.org.

The report, co-authored by Platte Institute policy director Sarah Curry and Farm Bureau senior economist Jay Rempe, urges Nebraskans to learn from the pandemic’s food-chain disruptions if their aspirations for our economy are to be realized.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green has set “a notable goal” to make Nebraska “the epicenter of global food production,” they say.

But while Nebraska has “many advantages from its natural resources, infrastructure, educational system, people and heritage ... growing Nebraska agriculture and becoming the epicenter of global food production won’t just happen.”

That’s where last spring’s experiences come in. “Nebraska producers, agricultural businesses, elected officials and educational leaders should think strategically on how Nebraska can marshal these advantages in a post-COVID-19 world,” the study urges.

It’s a ticklish recommendation, as the study’s authors seem to acknowledge when they call for “a thorough examination” of Nebraska’s tax policy along with its approach to agricultural regulations and promotion of innovations.

We haven’t seen much evidence lately that Omaha and Lincoln leaders who hang around the State Capitol take rural Nebraska’s warnings about tax burdens on our farms and ranches at all seriously.

In any event, we’re still alive and kicking out here. The fall harvests will soon come in, and they’ll be big ones — in total product, anyway — though COVID-19’s invasion coincided with spring planting.

But the study’s recap of what March, April and May wrought bears sober reflection.

As the Platte Institute-Farm Bureau study recalls:

» Federal assistance has propped up farm income since it fell 69% in four years from its 2013 peak. Add in COVID-19, and UNL’s Bureau of Business Research estimates the state’s net farm income will fall 23% for all of 2020 — with federal aid accounting for up to half of what producers do take in.

» Why did grocery prices soar while dairy producers had to dump milk and some meat producers had to euthanize animals they couldn’t get to market?

Grocery stores and the “hospitality, restaurant and institutional food service sector” have “completely different supply chains,” the study says.

When COVID-19 forced schools and public dining rooms to close, food processors couldn’t quickly reroute idled food supplies.

» Meanwhile, meatpacking plants were hit with a double whammy: COVID-19 outbreaks among their largely minority workforce yielded backlogs for ranchers and farmer-feeders already dealing with large cattle and hog inventories.

» Nebraska’s ethanol industry suffered when fuel consumption plunged with so many people staying at or near home.

Corn producers “lost a key market for their corn,” while livestock producers were deprived of the distillers grains byproduct many of them use in feeding their herds.

» In the midst of all this, farmers and ranchers trying to adjust their business models to cope with COVID-19 ran up against the labyrinth of federal and state regulations.

Washington and Lincoln both waived some regulations to help agricultural producers, offering “a perfect case study for the possibility of future permanent reforms,” Curry and Rempe say.

U.S. Department of Agriculture programs have helped many farmers and ranchers stay afloat, they say. So has the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which Nebraska’s community banks pursued so aggressively to help smaller agricultural producers and small businesses stay afloat during COVID-19’s early months.

No matter when the pandemic finally begins to fade, “the effects of COVID-19 will be felt by Nebraska agriculture for many years and raises several important questions for the state for the long term,” the Platte Institute/Farm Bureau study says.

Not to mention Nebraskans of all income levels, races and demographic groups. All of us, in some way, depend on agriculture.

It’s times like this when Nebraska most needs to set aside urban-rural and conservative-liberal disputes. Let’s start learning our COVID-19 lessons now, together.

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