The rapidly evolving situation is raising questions throughout the U.S.
The World Health Organization now considers the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to be a pandemic. The rapidly evolving situation is raising questions throughout the U.S. The stock market has taken a hit in recent weeks creating wild volatility and there are growing concerns about the virus and our reaction to it causing a significant downturn in the general economy.
But what about agriculture? Below are six specific things that farmers, farming families, ag employers, and ag employees need to be aware of and plan for.
Concerns about the impact of the virus on the broader economy are likely to have an even larger impact on dairy prices. Many countries of the European Union were already hovering just above a recession prior to the viral outbreak and this event is likely to push them over the edge. Prior to this event, China was also experiencing slower economic growth. The U.S. has enjoyed strength in the economy, but there have been leading indicators prior to pandemic concerns that suggested that we were past the peak of the business cycle and that an economic slowdown, or perhaps that a recession was coming. A worldwide recession, like the one experienced in 2008-09, would push the previously expected milk price recovery off for at least another year.
3. Farmers’ health. Throughout the Midwest, farmers are a relatively older population, as compared to the general worker population. The 2017 ag census shows the average age of farm operators to be almost 58 – at least a full ten years older than workers in most other sectors. And, unlike other industry workers, farm operators, 26% are age 65 years and up. A full 11.7% of our principal farm operators are age 75 and older. Data from other countries that have done
4. The farm workforce. Even if the general population infection rate remains relatively low, it is likely that we will see some workers who end up sick. But, perhaps more importantly, even if the infection rate stays low (single digits), it is highly likely that workers will need to be out of work particularly with school closures and/or workers who need to stay home to care for sick or elderly family members. The fear of this event and lack of information may also lead to higher levels of absenteeism.
5. Worker safety and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). There are shortages of PPE and other protective equipment vital for operating a farm safely and keeping workers and animals healthy. As a result of the current demands by the healthcare industry, N-95 respirator supplies are highly limited (likely to be needed this spring for handling dusty grain as a result of last fall’s sub-optimal harvest conditions). There are also reported concerns about availability of protective gloves which have now become commonplace in dairy operations as a protective means to improve milk quality and protect the health of animals and people.
6. Other Disruptions. Sparse populations and less frequent travel may provide a natural social distancing for rural communities but there are challenges that may be faced by rural residents. Many gathering places, such as schools and churches, are being closed and told to halt normal routines and events. As a substitute, in some areas and for high school and college students, classes and services are being taught online. This may be difficult for some rural residents as high-speed internet service is not available in some areas of the state including some of our communities with a strong agricultural base.
Only time will reveal the severity of the impacts on agriculture from the novel coronavirus. We urge everyone to take reasonable precautions to limit the spread of the disease and its influence on your businesses and lives. Hoarding of farm supplies is not recommended and could cause even greater problems for the sector, but prudent purchases of necessary inputs might minimize disruptions to your business.
Please keep informed, listen to the experts, and follow the recommendations of federal, state and local agencies and authorities. Updates and additional resources available to help farmers and other rural communities prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 virus and its impacts can be found on the Extension Farm Management website at https://farms.extension.wisc.edu/2020/03/06/coronavirus/.
Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis with the UW–Madison Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and UW–Madison Division of Extension, and director of the UW Center for Dairy Profitability
John Shutske, professor and extension specialist with the UW–Madison Department of Biological Systems Engineering and UW–Madison Division of Extension, and director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health