How Farmers & Growers Have Adapted to COVID-19

2019 was a difficult year from farmers and growers, as they faced a number of weather-related issues that resulted in a middling growing season overall. However, 2020 has quickly proven to be a far greater challenge, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced large scale shutdowns of both national and global supply chains. The result has been that many grocery stores and restaurants either cannot or will not accept agreed upon inventory, leaving farmers to repurpose their existing crops and livestock. This is not even considering the significant health risks, as most agriculture professionals simply do not have the option to turn to remote work like many other industries have in the face of this crisis. 

It is a stressful situation, with news reports showing American farmers dumping milk and burning crops due to shutdowns and lagging demand. Yet despite this doom and gloom imagery, there are many agricultural professionals who have not let these trials wear them down. Instead, they have risen to the occasion, coming up with new and novel alternatives to keep operations going. These farmers, growers, and business owners serve as an example for everyone in the industry, offering potential guidance and inspiration through their actions. 

Community Agriculture & Home Delivery

It is little surprise that most farms have seen the side of their businesses centered around restaurants and farmers markets crater over the past few months, but many have found ways to lessen the damage by instead investing in local, community-centric options. Community support agriculture (or CSA) is booming right now, with programs across the country reporting a surge in memberships. Others are doubling down on home delivery options, with some farmers approaching all-time high revenues by selling to people instead of restaurants. 

As has been the case with many other industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of the U.S. agribusiness supply chain, showing just how ill-prepared these systems were to handle a crisis on the scale of the Coronavirus. Even the U.S. government has recognized how viable the CSA model is during these trying times, as they recently put in $3 billion in contracts for farmers to deliver fresh produce and dairy boxes to local food banks across the country. All of this shows that the model is worthwhile, at least as an alternative to more traditional agribusiness supply chains. 

The Digitization of Farming & Forages

A common narrative that we’re seeing right now is that COVID-19 has forced professionals across almost every industry to rethink their relationships with technology. Companies have taken digital transformation plans that were expected to occur over a five-year period and have instead have fully implemented them in a matter of weeks. With so much uncertainty, businesses need every possible edge to stay competitive and profitable, and agriculture is no exception to this. 

As an example, Farmers Edge CEO Wade Barnes has argued that the COVID-19 pandemic will push for the greater digitization of farms, as there are a number of digital tools that could simplify the complex communications among farms, seed companies, insurance agents, and other stakeholders. We’ve already seen a number of farms embracing new technologies to better meet the demands of the pandemic, from autonomous planting robots to wearable tech for health screening purposes

What The Future Holds

There’s no telling exactly what the post-pandemic world is going to look like, but one thing that is apparent is that U.S. farmers and growers are more than capable of adapting to that world. Rather than just rushing to go back to “business as usual,” the COVID-19 pandemic can serve as an opportunity to address our systems’ faults and to introduce innovative new solutions. This is a time of crisis, but it is also a time to learn, grow, and improve, so that once the pandemic is truly over, we can come back stronger than ever.  

Alternative Forage Crops: How Farmers & Growers Adapted to Extreme Weather Events

Though the past few years have seen a number of weather-related challenges for farmers, the 2019 growing and harvest seasons were easily among the most difficult seasons that growers had ever experienced. Several regions had to deal with severe winterkill and an excessively wet fall, while others struggled with below average precipitation and drought. All of this came with little-to-no warning, meaning that the forage growing season and the inventories that followed were heavily compromised. 

However, American farmers and growers are nothing if not determined: in the face of the numerous challenges they experienced throughout 2019, farmers turned to a number of alternative forage species and growing strategies to fill the gap. With highly volatile weather having become a common occurrence, it is clear that selecting alternative forage crops isn’t just a one-off solution during a down period, but a necessity to stay agile and competitive. As such, it is important to take note of how farmers and growers across the country are answering the call and adapting to changing environmental considerations. 

The Challenges of Extreme Weather 

Extremes have come to define the past few years, with 2019 in particular seeing a series of erratic and highly unpredictable weather events that caught many farmers and growers flat footed. Simply put, whether it was hot or cold, wet or dry, the weather hit harder than usual, offering little warning for the damage it was bound to cause. All of this led to serious complications for the planting, growing, and storage of many common crops and forage grasses. 

With the weather staying wet well past the normal planting dates for corn and beans, some growers simply did not have enough healthy plants to produce a full crop. The wet soil resulted in heavy compacting, which in turn led to poor drainage, lost nutrients, and far more weeds than forage. Even if growers did manage to get a decent crop, many also had to suffer through major dry spells, which further hindered crop production and storage. Worst of all, in some areas this has been the norm for years, with Midwest farmers and growers citing heavy rain and unseasonably mild winters as the cause of some of their worst hay yields in nearly a decade

The Search For Viable Alternatives 

In response to the multitude of weather problems that plagued growers throughout 2019, there was a push to find viable alternative crops that could either better endure the inclement weather. Whatever the specifics of their situations, growers needed to get some kind of feed from their acres, which led to a number of “unfamiliar” feeds seeing use. If it could be windrowed and chopped, farmers tried it: small grain silages, ryegrass, sorghum sudangrass, forage peas, soybean silage. The variety was astounding, demonstrating the need to both produce new crops and renovate pastures. 

In many cases, growers needed to find crops that could be planted earlier than corn or soybeans, though even as farmers and producers found new options to fill these gap, new challenges would become apparent. For instance, some growers turned to fast-maturing crops like sunflowers, buckwheat, and cowpeas, unaware that some of herbicides used earlier in the season might be incompatible with their new alternatives. Like any experiments, there will be both successes and failures, so although not all of these alternative crops worked out, on the whole it helped growers stay competitive during an uncertain harvest. 

Lessons For 2020 & Beyond

With three or four ground freeze and thaw episodes already in the late autumn, there are already reasons to be wary of just how much existing alfalfa acreage will survive the winter, especially coming off of the heels of one of the most difficult growing seasons in recent memory. Yet the 2019 season have prepared growers for what is on the horizon, teaching them the importance of fast action and adapting to the sudden changes that mother nature can throw at you. Plus, despite all of the frustration that 2019 brought, many growers made the best of these extreme conditions, with reports suggesting bright spots for hay exports and at least mild improvements to acreage, yield, and production across the board

This is all very impressive given just how middling a growing season it was overall, and it goes to show that this type of experimentation isn’t just something that should be pursued to fill gaps in more traditional practices, but because they can be commercially viable in their own right. Whether by double cropping, using cover crops, breaking up of customary crop rotations, or accommodating manure applications throughout the growing season, there are numerous methods that be leveraged to make the growing process a little more effective, and with so many alternatives to the more traditional crops, there are doubtlessly some options that would work best your growing strategies!