Resilience was key for ag in 2020

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by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If any word typified agriculture in 2020, it was “resilience.” Tom Facer, president of Farm Fresh First LLC in Oakfield, NY, spoke on resilience in agriculture for his keynote speech at the recent New York State Agricultural Meeting hosted online this year.

He acknowledged the challenging times for many people but added that, “we should feel fortunate that we haven’t been hit as hard as some areas of the national economy and social groups. Agriculture will continue to get through this as we have some resilience.”

He said that as things began to shut down in mid-March, people in urban areas were fully immersed in the pandemic overnight, allowing fear to set in, and along with that some panic buying.

“Those of us in rural areas didn’t feel it as quickly or as bad as large urban areas but it affected us,” Facer said. “Panic buying started setting in. It was like a large snowstorm was coming. Non-perishable items became scarce as people started buying to protect themselves from what they didn’t know.”

As panic buying stretched retail resources thin, especially after supply chains broke down, producers supplying the foodservice industry found no market for their goods and/or had limited access to processors.

“The one thing the U.S. was proud of prior to that is we had developed a very highly efficient food system that overnight became fractured,” Facer said. “Those lines and in some cases whole facilities developed for foodservice sat idle while retail production couldn’t handle the volume.”

Moving into May, operators modified their operations. USDA purchased some farms’ goods as they initiated ways to bring food to Americans through the $1.5 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

“That program became a big deal for certain items and helped offset losses for the foodservice side,” Facer said. “Many of the state governments initiated food purchase support. Nourish New York is an example.”

Through this time period, the rush by consumers in retail did not slow down, Facer said. “Manufacturers of products in many of the products we deal with are seasonal. They couldn’t come up with more material as they’re out of season. Those not out of season were in high demand.”

Farms faced other challenges as safety restrictions affected the workplace. Employers had to supply masks, for example. Those processing foods had to keep their employees six feet apart. That led to situations where consumers demanded more goods to stockpile, but plants were unable to process as much.

Despite the struggles and half-empty shelves, agriculture and the businesses they supply carried on. By mid-summer, some facilities were able to realign their manufacturing lines so they could begin increasing production.

“The Farmers to Families program bought truckloads of a product, whether boxes of three-pound bags of apples or five-pound bags of potatoes, to be delivered directly to a food pantry,” Facer said.

It was totally a new venture, Facer said. “As a result, many new food assembly entities of people who hadn’t been in food distribution business set up. It moved a tremendous amount of product that all of us on the ag side were happy to make available. The traditional USDA purchases of truckloads of products continued at unprecedented levels.”

The Nourish NY program has been funded up to $35 million. Facer said that other states operate similar programs.

As higher infection rates continued through the summer, “it added to the complexity of workers not being comfortable going to work and consumers not being comfortable going to the store. The rural areas had escaped early on but by mid-summer and to today, they’re more affected than before.”

Facer saw a few other bright points throughout the summer.

“American Farm Bureau says that the trust of American farmers improved during 2020,” Facer said. “We should be happy about that and take the opportunity to improve that.”

As few means of entertainment were open, family visits to farms increased during the summer, especially U-pick operations and farm markets.

“It’s not just here, but across the country,” Facer said. “The greatest part of that is that it was family visits, increasing the exposure of youth to agriculture. They can see where their food comes from. That’s a good thing and we’ve got to do more of that. There are so few of us in ag. We need to do a better job of teaching where our food comes from.”

Part of reason that people turned to farms for food is that they are perceived as safer since people believe that their goods are touched fewer times.

He said that another positive is that commodities like fresh onions and potatoes increased, although he noted that potatoes grown for processing into french fries are not doing as well, as foodservice has remained slow.

Facer had a few concerns about how to deal with the impact of online shopping – a huge trend among consumers of all goods as people still do not want to shop in person as much.

“They’re not in the store and there’s a lower chance of an impulse purchase,” Facer said.

“Product innovating costs money. Merchandising costs money,” Facer said. “It will be more difficult to get that margin back on those items. That is certainly a concern.”

Facer said another concern is that if we experience another shutdown, food producers and retailers will not have any backstock to provide to consumers.

“One advantage we had back when the pandemic hit is we had inventory,” Facer said. “Now those are gone. We’re pretty much hand-to-mouth. If we go through this again, it could be pretty significant.”

Despite that, Facer believes that the food supply is safe. “We’ve learned how to adapt as guidelines come along,” Facer said. “We’ll see increased capital expenditures on the farm and along the supply chain to further mechanize. I don’t think any of us will forget 2020. We’ll have stories to tell to our grandchildren.”

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