A year we won’t soon forget: 2020 in review

No one is going to forget 2020.

COVID-19 loomed over politics, the economy and everything in between. And as we round out the year with a promising vaccine rollout, it’s time to take a look at where we’ve been and where we might be headed.

January to March

The headlines in January were all about presidential impeachment and trade agreements, reported our contributor Sara Wyant, editor of Agri-Pulse. The United States-Japan trade agreement went into effect Jan. 1, which dropped Japanese tariffs on U.S. beef, pork and dairy shipments into the country. President Donald Trump also signed the Phase 1 deal with China, which held the country to purchasing roughly $40 billion in agricultural products over 2020 and 2021. And rounding out the month, on Jan. 29, Trump signed the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which was a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Creighton University Rural Mainstreet Index for January climbed to its highest level since June 2018 on the news. It was the fifth straight month of above neutral growth, signaling farmers’ optimism in the rural economy.

At the National Western Stock Show, the 2020 Auction of Junior Livestock Champions set an unprecedented auction total of $531,000, with the Grand Champion Steer selling for an all-time record $155,000.

The first reported case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was Jan. 20 in Washington state, just as agricultural professionals, farmers and ranchers began gathering for their annual national meetings in January and February. A few attendees were starting to hear of the “Novel Coronavirus” or what would eventually be called COVID-19, and even fewer were concerned. Life and agribusiness went on as normal. On Feb. 17, contributor David Murray wrote about the $265 million jury verdict handed down because of alleged damage to a Missouri peach farm from dicamba drift. It was yet another blow to Bayer and BASF, which market both dicamba and dicamba-resistant seeds, he wrote. But then the news started quickly to turn to COVID-19. The novel coronavirus was starting to spread through many states, and pretty soon, the phrases, “unprecedented” and “abundance of caution” were going to be on the tips of everyone’s tongues.

By March 17, a total of 3,503 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed, all by local transmission, in all 50 states. At the start of the month farmers were more concerned with how COVID-19 shutdowns in China would affect their spring crop input prices and availability. They were not thinking that the country would shut down for a virus.

But as more cases started stacking up, and with no treatments or handle on the virus transmission in sight to guide public safety, health officers and public officials were starting to make difficult decisions as to whether spring meetings and gatherings of large numbers of people would still continue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had no answers to slowing the spread of the virus, other than “social distancing”—advising people to stay apart, work from home if they were able, and try to not bunch up in poorly ventilated areas.

When the NCAA canceled the annual March Madness basketball championship, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus among crowds of fans, Americans started to see the magnitude of the COVID-19 challenge. Then, other national events started to follow suit.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo organizers decided to send exhibitors home, just as the show was starting. Then more followed suit. Even the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate were working from home, according to longtime editorial writer “Seymour Klierly.”

As Americans started to see stay-at-home orders in various states, and schools sent students home to learn by Zoom, and businesses started encouraging their employees to work from home, the effects began to be seen in the food and agriculture sectors. Glynn Tonsor, a Kansas State University ag economist, estimated at the end of March that the damage to the cattle industry could be $7 to 9 billion just in March. With so many restaurants and cafeterias closed, the retail sector saw a jump in demand. That created supply pinch points in the meat industry and other food manufacturing points of the food chain. Without people commuting from home to work and school, demand for fuel dropped and many ethanol plants shuttered their doors or switched to producing hand sanitizer to combat virus spread.

As Editor Dave Bergmeier wrote toward the end of the month, we would get through this if we pulled together.

April to June

The late spring and early summer saw Americans working and learning from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom webinars and calls were now the normal—and the pandemic further drew light to gaps in broadband connectivity, the food supply chain and even childcare in the U.S. As Web Editor Shauna Rumbaugh wrote, the pandemic was putting the rural internet to the test.

Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, was scarce and Americans were making masks and making do. There were runs in the stores on everything from toilet paper and cleaning supplies to bread flour and yeast. Field Editor Lacey Newlin reported on how the bread and flour industry was rising to the COVID-19 challenge. Americans started re-learning and re-thinking how they were shopping and making meals at home. Consumer trend researchers started to note that some of these behavior patterns may very well last even beyond the pandemic, further changing how food is manufactured and marketed.

On April 28, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in signing an Executive Order that would declare meatpacking operations critical infrastructure that must remain open. This was an effort to not only keep retail meat cases full, but also work through the bottleneck of finished livestock waiting for processing. This followed the announcement of a $19 billion Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program package that included $16 billion in direct payments to farmers.

Major and minor events canceled all over the nation. From the World Dairy Expo to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and from county fairs to large livestock shows, Americans started to hate the phrase, “out of an abundance of caution.” Other events went online, like the annual Wheat Quality Tour.

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Meanwhile, the business of raising food, fiber and fuel continued. The U.S. State Department began extending H2-A visa waivers to essential agricultural workers needed in America’s orchards, fields and farms. And in June the the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to help farmers and livestock producers who saw 5% or greater price declines due to COVID-19 impacts, or if the pandemic significantly disrupted their market chains.

Marking a small bit of normalcy, the annual All Aboard Harvest Tour kicked off in May and the combining correspondents blogged from the road about the sights and sounds of wheat harvest up and down the Plains. Albeit with social distancing measures in place.

July to September

While early hopes had much of America opening back up by the late summer and early fall, with a second wave of COVID-19 cases reaching farther into the rural areas life had to wait to return to normal. Many school districts returned to in-person teaching, but the National FFA Convention would be online for the first time in history. The Kansas State Fair and many other state fairs closed to the public and only held livestock shows for limited audiences.

Still, rural readers pulled together to help one another. In August, Dairy MAX out of Grand Prairie, Texas, distributed more than 200,000 gallons of milk to needy residents. And throughout the pandemic, rural farms and ranches started to market their production to local consumers, through marketing groups on Facebook.

In August, Field Editor Kylene Scott reported that for the first time in a long time, sorghum basis was $0.55 higher than corn, much of that due to demand from Chinese importers.

The nation geared up for the primaries and then the November presidential election.

October to December

The late fall and winter saw COVID-19 cases rising in rural America. In October, USDA announced a second round of CFAP payment to help farmers and ranchers through the pandemic’s affects. And, the USDA also extended free school meals to all children through the entire 2020-2021 school year in response to economic hardships many faced because of the pandemic.

The November election came and went. President-Elect Joe Biden began announcing his cabinet choices, including Tom Vilsack in a return to leading the USDA. While the Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and began to select their committee chairmen, the control of the U.S. Senate was still up in the air pending the Georgia run-off election in January 2021. In December, the House Democratic Caucus elected Rep. David Scott, D-GA, as chairman of the Ag Committee—the first Black chairman of the committee in its history.

The USDA Economic Research Service forecasted 2020 net farm income at $119.6 billion, the highest level since 2013. But, $46.6 billion of that was in the form of direct government farm payments such as ad hoc disaster aid and COVID-19 relief.

And then, on Dec. 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed in the U.S. Many in agriculture saw it as a small ray of hope for 2021 and a return to normal.

Indeed, no one is likely to forget the year 2020. But through the highs, the lows, the shutdowns and the cancellations, the unrest and the heartache, High Plains farmers and ranchers continued to keep the country fed, fueled and clothed.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].