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CFBF president's message: Study shows need for quick, intelligent pandemic response

Issue Date: June 24, 2020
Jamie Johansson President California Farm Bureau Federation

It's striking, the breadth and depth of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on all of us—even those of us in an essential business such as agriculture that has kept operating throughout the crisis. As we pray for those who have fallen ill or lost loved ones to this terrible disease, we also recognize how it has affected those of us fortunate enough to be able to continue working.

No matter what sort of farm or ranch we operate, each of us, individually, can relate stories of how we've been affected as markets convulsed in response to the pandemic: restaurants and schools closing, processing plants forced to reinvent their operations on the fly, crops and commodities stranded without a buyer when demand suddenly stopped or changed. We've described many of those impacts in Ag Alert® the past four months through the observations of individual farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesspeople.

But when you start to view the impact on a wider scale, it adds up—fast. That's what we learned through an economic study Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations commissioned.

So far, California farms, ranches and agricultural businesses have absorbed impacts that total $2 billion, when you account for both the lost or reduced markets and the added costs of operating during the pandemic. As the year and the pandemic stretch on, the study shows, losses could add up to $5.9 billion to $8.6 billion (see story).

Think about that for a minute. Losses of $2 billion accumulated in only about four months, at a time before peak harvests of many California-grown crops and commodities had started. Those impacts could triple or quadruple in the remaining six months of this year—and we don't know the course the pandemic may take when we turn the corner into 2021.

The report shows the impacts on farms and ranches are as wide and deep as California agriculture itself.

Because so many of us sell crops intended for institutional customers—restaurants, schools, convention centers and so on—their closure or downsizing threw a wrench into the entire system. Many farmers also sell directly to customers—such as local chefs or people visiting a farm stand, farmers market or winery tasting room—and many of those sales evaporated.

Impacts at one point in the system reverberate throughout the system: Slowdowns at meat-processing plants mean cattle ranchers can't sell their animals; closures of mills in China and other countries cause cotton demand to fall; the worldwide nature of the pandemic and its economic repercussions affect crucial export demand for many crops.

And, of course, the pandemic and its wide-ranging impacts dropped on top of troubled trade relations and a return of drought, each of which has caused its own troubles for California's rural economy.

From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, farmers and ranchers have remained focused on what's important:

  • We will do everything we know how to keep our families, our employees and ourselves safe.
  • We proudly accept the responsibility of being an essential sector that provides products our neighbors need every day.
  • We will maintain our commitment to community by doing all we can to make sure people don't go to bed hungry at night.

But we also know we will need help to continue to achieve those objectives.

State and federal government agencies have quickly ramped up aid programs, and those have been welcome. But, of course, those programs don't apply to everyone and can never make people whole for their losses. While recognizing that, Farm Bureau will continue to encourage agencies to make sure their programs widen their focus to include as broad a representation as possible of California's diverse farms, ranches and agricultural businesses.

In addition, Farm Bureau continues working to be sure that, in their rush to address the many impacts of the pandemic, government agencies don't unwittingly interfere in the essential work farmers, ranchers and their employees must do to keep food and farm products moving to market. While working quickly to attack the troubles caused by the pandemic, we must also work intelligently to assure long-lasting recovery once the crisis ebbs.

As the economic study puts it, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on California agriculture have been "severe, unprecedented and will continue to affect the industry for the coming months and years." Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations will work together to assure our representatives in local, state and federal governments realize that and do whatever they can to allow our essential operations to function smoothly.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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