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Coronavirus is 'a very real issue' for U.S. farming, but its direct impact may vary

Farmers are concerned about how COVID-19 could impact the supply chain later this year.

The effect that the coronavirus will have on the United States farming industry hangs like a fall morning fog, delivering a slight chill as it lingers. The timing of the pandemic is rough for farmers, with planting season underway in select states and about to begin in most. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just released its first Crop Progress report of the season Monday.

"This is a very real issue," Robert J. Brunner, Associate Dean for Innovation and Chief Disruption Officer in the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinoins, told AccuWeather. "But honestly, it likely depends to which crop you are referring. For the commodity crops (e.g., wheat, corn, soybeans), planting season is heavily mechanized with 'semi-autonomous tractors' and other innovations. For those crops, I suspect harvest might be a bigger issue. On the other hand, for more labor-intensive crops that you buy in a grocery store, this could be a very big challenge."

Farmers aren't exactly cowed by a new challenge to their livelihood, coming off a disastrous 2019 season ruined by early excessive rain and the resultant flooding that had farmers playing catch-up all year.

"We're going to continue business as usual on the farm..." Calvin Haile, co-owner of Haile Farm in Dunnsville, Virginia, told AccuWeather. "We can't put our operations on hold. Crops need to be planted at a certain time. They can't wait."

What concern farmers do have is two-fold: Short-term for certain segments of the farming industry but also what could happen along the entire supply chain later.

"[COVID-19] could possibly have an effect," said Nebraska farmer Edwin C. Brummels, who has been in the agriculture industry since 1981. "All ag retail people are looking for seasonal help right now for spring planting. Could the pool be affected [in terms] of who is available? Will people take unemployment instead?

"Within these ag retail businesses, there are several key people who would seriously hinder the productivity of plants if they were out for two weeks," Brummels added. "Plant operation managers, salespeople making recommendations, machine operators - basically, a lot of the full-time people would be harder to replace because of their experience and knowledge base. Seasonal help - while vitally important - usually are delivery-type people, [and] it is quicker to train someone new for that type of job."

States such as New York, New Jersey and Louisiana are tops among total COVID-19 cases per 1 million population, but people in commodity crop farming states are faring better. Among the top five states for corn and soybean production are Illinois (10th on the COVID-19 cases-per-million list), Indiana (14th), Iowa (36th), Nebraska (47th) and Minnesota (50th).

If those COVID-19 numbers were to rise in commodity crop states, farmers there "likely would have more trouble at harvest, since they need people to ... move the crop to local storage, manage the dryers on local storage and truck drivers to move the crop to market (or at least to major grain elevators/shipping centers)," Brunner told AccuWeather.

AccuWeather predicts U.S. corn production will be 15.735 billion bushels, which would be a U.S. record for annual corn production, topping 15.15 billion bushels in 2016. That's roughly a 13 percent increase over the final total last year of 13.692 billion bushels. AccuWeather forecasts U.S. soybean production also will see a strong comeback, with production estimated to be 4.258 billion bushels, a 19.6 percent increase from 2019's total of 3.558 billion bushels, which was the lowest total since 2013 (3.357 billion bushels). Such an increase would be the largest year-over-year improvement since 2004 (27.3 percent increase from 2003).

"I would think this would have little impact on the harvest unless the rural areas somehow get devastated by this, but I don't think that's the most likely turn of events," said AccuWeather Commodities Consultant Jim Candor.

Some farmers are finding the pandemic has helped in one way as they start the season and that the isolation of their work can have its payoffs during a time of social distancing.

"For us right now, we have tons of help because all of the schools and colleges are closed," Nebraska farmer Justin Mensik told AccuWeather. "I do not think this virus will impact [the industry] much; farmers are self-isolated in a tractor cab all day long anyways."

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