With the arrival of the COVID-19 black swan, the range of emotions in today's society is analogous to an individual receiving news of a life-threatening health situation. Societal anger may be just around the corner as social distancing and isolation are becoming more of the norm throughout the U.S. and around the globe.
As the pandemic plays out, it takes me back decades to when I first arrived in Virginia for a position at Virginia Tech. Attempting to maintain my roots in farming, I rented my first farm from a neighbor named Bob. He was a modest man, a lumberjack, a farmer, and a person who had experienced world wars, depressions, assassinations, and even the Spanish flu. As I was feeding cattle and checking calves, my attention was drawn to the side road. Bob told the story of losing three brothers in three days due to the Spanish flu. Their coffins were hauled on a horse drawn wagon up that side road to the family graveyard. Bob had a temperature of 106°F; however, his fever broke just after their deaths and he lived to be 98 years of age. Evening talks with Bob always put life in the right perspective, which leads to this article. Just before my COVID-19 sabbatical, I asked a group of young farmers, “What are some of the positives or cup half-full perspectives concerning the recent challenges facing the globe?” As they shared points and perspectives, now I was in Bob's position providing them with perspective, but also hope.
One group indicated that the recent events have brought agriculture back into prominence. In many countries, the ability to meet basic needs has been taken for granted in recent decades and is now threatened. It is a good wake-up call for many individuals to know where their food is produced, processed, and the faces that make it happen. As one group stated, having a trusted source of food and getting back to the basics may be the theme for the next few years.
Another group stated that efficiency is not the only economic virtue. A sudden impact crisis requires us to rethink our priorities and well-being. For example, a large majority of our meat processing is with a few large firms. While this may be optimal for efficiency, it may hinder the resiliency of society and our ability to manage through a black swan event. Specialization and efficiency are great in economics, however diversification and resiliency in businesses, households, and society need to be considered. What will happen to the basic needs if individuals are compromised by the virus shutting down a major part of production or processing? The idea of small businesses and entrepreneurship with diversified sources of input and processing need to be examined for the economic security and well-being of the country.
I chuckle that our neighbors from the north have been criticized in recent years for the milk quota system, which results in smaller, more diverse production throughout Canada. Maybe they are onto something? As we experience vulnerability and disruption of the supply and transportation system, we need to think through different options. Perhaps some of the antitrust legislation needs to be considered in light of current events.
Next time, we will discuss more cup half-full perspectives and stories about Bob.
The opinions of Dr. David Kohl are not necessarily those of Farm Progress.