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view from behind John Deere tractor and planter in field
AG MOVES AHEAD: Many of you have already planted. If you haven’t, you will soon. You can’t put off crop production waiting for COVID-19 to pass. But you can practice safety habits.

Producing crops and livestock must go on

Farmers must balance staying safe with continuing to grow crops and raise livestock.

Perhaps Bill Field explains it best with an analogy. The Purdue University Extension ag engineer and farm safety specialist wants his nonfarm neighbors to understand why agriculture’s reaction to COVID-19 by necessity must be different than the rest of society’s.

“It’s time to plant, with or without COVID-19,” Field says. “One of the early church fathers was working in his garden when a passerby stopped and asked him what he would do if he was informed that the following day would be his last day on Earth.

“Without missing a stroke of his hoe, he responded, ‘I would finish weeding my garden.’

“I asked one of my neighbors, while still maintaining appropriate social distancing, a somewhat similar question relating to the impact of COVID-19. He responded that he was, quite frankly, too busy taking care of a crop of new calves and getting equipment ready for planting to give COVID-19 a lot of thought.

“These two tillers of the soil, living 1,500 years apart, appeared to have their priorities in the right place. Neither was going to be distracted from what they saw as essential tasks needing immediate attention and allow their lives to become captive to the daily cycle of ‘late breaking news’ and the fear it is currently generating.”

Field explains that unlike sports, and even school, spring planting can’t be canceled or postponed to a more convenient time with fewer risks. Neither can spraying for weeds nor sidedressing nitrogen for corn.

Unlike restaurants, churches and bars, agribusinesses cannot be closed until everyone tests negative for COVID-19. Unlike local, state and federal government offices, grain terminals can’t stop receiving grain from customers to keep all the employees feeling safe.

“If we’re all going to eat next year, fields need to be tilled, fertilized, planted and cared for, or the consequences from the ‘cure’ for this disease will, in fact, far outweigh the immediate health effects,” Field says.

Ag production matters

Yes, there are likely to be very large carryover stocks of both corn and soybeans at the end of the 2020 marketing year — at least that’s what ag economists foresee now. Yet that assumes planting 96 million to 97 million acres of corn and 83 million to 84 million acres of soybeans nationally, with trend yields.

If no crops were planted nationwide for just one year, those big surpluses would turn into empty grocery shelves in a huge hurry. Consumers got just a taste of what that might be like when a sudden rush on food and other items disrupted the supply chain in mid-March. That’s nothing like what would happen if the food wasn’t there for the distribution chain to figure out how to move.

Just as the president, state and local leaders need a strategy for getting the country back to work, every farm family and operation will need a strategy to weave their way through this upcoming planting season, despite the rippling effects of COVID-19, Field says. Even though agricultural production is considered in the national emergency response plan as an essential service, farm families are already facing issues that are making their jobs more difficult and, in some cases, riskier.

Formulate your own plan, secure what protective equipment you can, and stay safe. But keep producing. America is counting on it!

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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