When it comes to social distancing, and being an essential industry, few jobs compare to farming. Still, the profession is not immune to the issues caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
From one particular farmer’s point of view, the pandemic is scary. Merv Vierkandt has taken it seriously since the first reports of the coronavirus in the U.S. He’s only ramped up from there as he heads to the fields.
Vierkandt grows corn and soybeans and runs a trucking operation with his son. Morgan Vierkandt, near Buckeye. He already has much of his anhydrous applied for the spring, but he's keep an eye on the ever-changing pandemic.
Vierkandt said a couple of his drivers have decided to stay home. Those drivers have respiratory issues that put them especially at risk.
“I don’t need the money enough to put them at risk, so they’re home and will have job when this thing clears up,” Vierkandt said. “My drivers have been instructed to take extreme precautions. We’re doing all the things we can do to keep the coronavirus from getting us. We avoid the truck stops, disinfect, and stay away from people.”
While he is confident in his employees’ ability to practice safety measures, it’s the other end of those deals that has Vierkandt concerned. He said he has seen a decrease in business over the last three weeks as clients have made changes in the wake of the virus' spread.
“As far as I’m concerned, we in Iowa need to take this thing a lot more seriously,” Vierkandt said. “But as long as farmers are able to get out to the fields and jobs are able to get done with safe physical distancing, then I absolutely think a stay at home order should be issued right now.”
Iowa State University Extension Farm Management Program Specialist Kelvin Leibold said the impact of the pandemic on farming is far reaching. However, he said the short-term impact on spring planting is likely limited. Livestock is another issue.
“Much of the fertilizer, seed, fuel and machinery is already in place or well underway,” Leibold said. “But the other part of the issue is that the livestock harvest facilities will have employee outbreaks that will slow or stop the processing of live animals.”
Leibold said there's always enough in the agriculture industry to worry about. The pandemic has already shifted some things that impact the industry and consumers, including the closure of restaurants and a spike in grocery store sales.
“Today the restaurant system is under great stress, so we have to adjust,” Leibold said. “The best thing a farmer can do to get through these uncertain times is to mange costs as best they can and to work with lenders to see about restructuring debt.”
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig has been on the front lines of the disease’s movement, keeping a close eye on how it will affect the state’s ag industry. From individual farmer concerns, to the Renewable Fuel Standard and its impact, Naig said the coronavirus is just something else to deal with.
Regardless, Naig said, farming is one of the most essential industries. Especially in Iowa.
“The food and agriculture supply chain is absolutely critical infrastructure in our country, it includes everything that we need to get a crop in the ground this spring and everything our farmers need to take care of their livestock,” Naig said. “But it also includes everything down the chain – the processing plants, the food manufacturers, transportation providers, warehouses and distribution centers, grocery stores.”
Naig said his office is monitoring all of the supply chains that directly impact Iowa’s farmers and ag businesses. With the spring planting process already started in Hardin County and throughout the state, those efforts are picking up.
“Spring planting is really here as soon as the weather cooperates,” Naig said. “We’ve already seen some folks go into the fields, so we’re making sure we have the seed, the fuel, the fertilizer and all those things in place and ready to go.”
Naig said the good news on that front is that those supply chains had been unaffected as of April 3. Naig said he's still staying on top of the situation. But, he noted, there are a lot of steps between getting the seed to put in the ground or the feed for livestock and that food ending up on the dinner table.
“What could happen, and the thing we are concerned about is if we end up with workers who are sick or there’s absenteeism anywhere along that chain there would be a disruption,” said Naig. “That’s what we’re really working to prevent with farmers and companies all throughout that supply chain.”
Naig said other things, like exports, had already been affected by changing trade agreements. Iowa is second only to California in agricultural exports, making any problem with trade potentially huge.
“Trade is critically important,” Naig said. “Those export supply chains have been disrupted because you’re talking about this being a global pandemic. But we are starting to see an uptick in some exports. That will only help us.”
With the passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) establishing free trade between the three countries, repairs to a trade agreement with China, and a new trade agreement with Japan, Naig said 2020 was looking like it would be a good year for agriculture exports. That sense of optimism hasn’t really changed.
“We just haven’t had a chance to feel the full benefit of those trade deals yet, but I think the reason we can be optimistic is that this (pandemic) will pass and those agreements are in place and they’re ready to go,” Naig said.
There is another, even deeper, impact being felt right now in that ag industry. That comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowing oil refineries to blend less ethanol that is required by the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Naig said there are estimates showing that there could be a 40 percent reduction in the demand for transportation fuel because more people are staying home during the pandemic. With lower oil prices leading to lower fuel prices, ethanol’s portion of the pie is drying up.
Naig said these are truly uncertain times for everyone in Iowa. Being an agriculture state, the pandemic has a lot of chances to negatively impact almost every walk of life. But farming is unique.
“It doesn’t matter where you live or what you do, it’s important to follow all the public health guidelines,” Naig said. “It’s good to have a plan around possible disruptions and to have things in place if you yourself get sick. But I can’t think of a better way to social distance than to get in a tractor and go plant crops.”