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Farmers in charge of keeping America fed say the past year has been 'feast or famine'

As the economy shut down over the past year, farmers adapted as they could, from e-commerce to direct-to-consumer selling and even home delivery.
Image: California milk farm
Raul (Junior) Nunez milks Holstein cows at Frank Konyn Dairy Inc., in Escondido, Calif., on April 16, 2020.Ariana Drehsler / AFP via Getty Images file

For the farmers in charge of keeping America fed, the past year has been one of “feast or famine.”

Commodity prices were depressed at the outset as trade tiffs with China cut demand for exports. Then, the pandemic’s supply chain snarls backed up logistics. The shutdown of restaurants and school cafeterias slashed a key market for many producers, who scrambled to find new buyers and ways to package their items for new retail markets. Labor supply, already strained by tighter border controls, fell further as workers fell sick or stayed home to avoid infection or take care of family, a choice made easier for those who could tap pandemic emergency unemployment benefits.

Some farmers adapted. They opened up or expanded retail operations. They leaned in to e-commerce, selling online directly to customers, or supplying companies that package their goods along with other producers for home delivery.

Others were forced to destroy their product. Dairy farmers dumped out their milk. Corn and onion growers plowed their crop into the soil, then promptly planted seeds for the next batch, hopeful things would be normalized by the time it matured. Some farmers gave away their goods to local food banks or to the public. One Idaho farmer posted millions of potatoes for free online and ended up giving away most.

Hickory Nut Gap Farm co-owners Jamie and Amy Ager
Hickory Nut Gap Farm co-owners Jamie and Amy Ager dealt with an 80 percent drop in restaurant business for their grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork as the pandemic hit.Courtesy of Bren Dendy

Big meat processors shut down or greatly reduced operations as the coronavirus tore through their tightly packed ranks, creating a meat paradox. On one side of the bottleneck, rural areas that couldn’t sell to bigger distributors sold fresh meat at fire sale prices. On the other side, prices soared for meat, and butcher cabinets in supermarkets were bare and lines of cars stretched for over a mile at food banks as newly unemployed and food-insecure families came for groceries.

“Last year the turbulence created circumstances where the unknown is so real,” said Jamie Ager, 43, the co-owner of Hickory Nut Gap Farm near Asheville, North Carolina. He sells grass-fed beef, pasture-raised hogs and a few turkeys and chickens. “It was more like an emotional experience of, 'How do we get through this together? What do we do?' The uncertainty was just disconcerting.”

The farm was facing an 80 percent drop in its restaurant and food service business, representing half of its overall revenue. “That hurt,” Ager said.

Along the way, customers and families rediscovered fresh local farm food. It was a way to shop without going to a crowded supermarket.

Along the way, customers and families rediscovered fresh, local farm food. It was a way to shop without going to a crowded supermarket. There was less processing and packaging to worry about. And it was a way to support local farmers going through tough times.

Ager’s farm pivoted as well, tripling its Community Supported Agriculture business, offering curbside pickup and investing in a new online ordering system. Retail ended up making up for that lost revenue, but the more direct relationship also had its own cost.

“Sales grew so quickly, it was exciting. But as time wore on, it wears on you,” Ager told NBC News. “Just felt more tired. I think everyone is feeling it.”

While some farmers had to destroy product, other producers leaned in to retail and other lines of business.

“We have been very fortunate during this time,” Jeff Schwager, CEO of Sartori Cheese in Plymouth, Wisconsin, wrote in an email. “The drop in food service business has been offset with strong retail and ingredient business. We were able to take 100 percent of the milk from our farms and use it for cheese every day.”

Some farmers took advantage of government relief programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and billions in direct assistance to farmers and ranchers.

Direct government payouts to farmers nearly doubled during 2020, with the government paying nearly 40 percent of their net income, according to a forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and net farm income hit its highest level in seven years.

Former President Donald Trump actively sought the farm vote during his failed re-election campaign and touted his administration’s payments to farmers, saying they were better off with government payments than relying solely on sales.

“Since last fall, prices have recovered to levels not seen in years, thanks largely to massive foreign purchases. Hopefully our trade worries have come to an end.”

“In fact, some people say our farmers do better now than when they actually had a farm,” Trump said during a campaign stop in Omaha, Nebraska, in October last year.

Still, the total number of farms in the U.S. continued to decline in 2020, to 2,019,000 farms from 2,023,400 the year prior, according to USDA estimates.

Many farmers have been made whole with the government assistance, while livestock and specialty crop growers have struggled. But overall, it could have been worse.

A farmer leads dairy cows from the pasture to the milking barn at a creamery in Ohio
A farmer leads dairy cows from the pasture to the milking barn at a creamery in Gallipolis, Ohio, on April 24, 2020.Matthew Hatcher / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

“Lots of anxiety for me but overall 2020 wasn't a bad year,” said Glen Groth, a corn-grower from Ridgeway, Minnesota, in an online message. “The downturn was much shorter lived than I or anyone else anticipated.”

“Since last fall, prices have recovered to levels not seen in years, thanks largely to massive foreign purchases of U.S. corn and soybeans,” he wrote. “Hopefully our trade worries have come to an end.”

Prices for soy and corn, two of the largest cash crops in the U.S., suffered slightly, falling below $9 and above $3 a bushel respectively during the pandemic. Now, led by China, and poor weather affecting South American producers, exports have run up demand. Soy is now up to $14 and corn is near $5.

“I wish I had a bunch left to sell. A lot of guys sold out at $10,” said Rob Shaffer, an Illinois soybean farmer. “It’s feast or famine.”

Moreover, with interest rates close to historic lows and the value of land rising — the primary source of retirement income for many farmers — many farmers, like Shaffer, are able to refinance on favorable terms.

“I’ll never get to borrow that cheap again in my life,” he said.