New Challenges, Low Commodity Prices For Ohio Farmers During Pandemic

Mar 23, 2020

Ohio farmers are facing low commodity prices in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, even as demand skyrockets in local grocery stores.

Farms still have food in supply, said Ohio Farm Bureau Director of Media Relations Ty Higgins, and they’re working to move that supply to the stores that need it.

“Farmers are still getting up every morning and doing whatever they need to do to keep that supply chain full,” Higgins said.

But that high demand is not improving the economic landscape for farmers, Higgins said. Commodity prices remain low after the United States’ lengthy trade war with China last year.

“Markets are still lower. They have been following the stock market as of late, and they’ve taken that dive,” Higgins said. “Not quite as substantial as what we’re seeing in New York at the stock exchange, but nevertheless a decline in prices.”

Financial markets tend to lag behind actual sales, Higgins said, so they could improve in a few months to reflect the demand brought on by the coronavirus.

“More food processors will need the products that farmers grow, and that demand will go up for the corn and for the soybeans and for the wheat,” he said. “We will see that happen down the road – that prices for those commodities will go up – but in the short term, it hasn’t really adjusted that much at all.”

Farm To (At-Home) Tables

The supply and demand hasn’t changed too dramatically for farmers, Higgins said, because people still need to eat three meals a day. The difference is whether the food is coming from a restaurant or from home pantries, he said.

“The small farmer that sells direct to the consumer and to restaurants are going to have a really hard time getting through these next couple of months,” Higgins said, “because they rely on those end users in order to make a living on the farm.”

There are still options for smaller farms that rely on direct sales to consumers, even as restaurants close down.

The stay-at-home order Gov. Mike DeWine issued this weekend shuts down everything but essential services. But the order does allow for grocery suppliers to remain open. That includes grocery storescertified farmers’ markets, produce stands and CSAs.

“There’s lots of ways that they can still provide the healthy and fresh and good food that they have, but keep that distance, keep things clean as possible,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Policy Council and Senior Director of Member Engagement Leah Curtis. “Making sure you’re sanitizing, using hand sanitizer and washing hands, et cetera, and minimizing that direct contact.”

Some local farmers’ markets are choosing to offer drive-thru for customers, Curtis said, allowing them to call ahead and pick up what they want without having to interact with vendors face-to-face. West Side Market in Cleveland implemented similar methods last week as a way to prevent the spread of the virus while still serving customers and staying open.

“We want to make sure that people understand that they can continue to patronize their farmer’s market,” Curtis said. “Remember that for a lot of our farmers, especially small farmers, that is the main part of the business.”

Spring Is Still Coming

The virus is hitting just as farmers are preparing for the planting. Farmers anticipate a regular planting season and acreages similar to previous years, said Ohio Farmer’s Union President Joe Logan. But the financial markets have been in freefall during the pandemic, he said, making it difficult to plan.

“When farmers go to sell their stuff, our prices are plummeting while the demand is skyrocketing,” Logan said. “That doesn’t make any sense, and the explanation, of course, is that our market is dysfunctional.”

Market consolidation has brought about more large corporations, Logan said, which pay farmers less for their work. And another concern for farmers in the midst of the pandemic is the availability and quality of rural healthcare, he said.

Expansions to Medicaid like those enacted by Ohio could provide some aid, he said, but farmer’s unions across the country are looking for ways to provide support and push for better rural healthcare in the face of the crisis.

Many farmers were already struggling prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Logan said.

“The dynamics of the marketplace do not look friendly at all for farmers, so I think that farmers are really going to struggle,” he said. “And this year, many of them had been right on the edge of insolvency.”

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