Despite facing the serious headwinds of precipitation and pestilence, Indiana’s farmers said they are prepared to feed the nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service said the state’s farmers intend to plant at least 5.8 million acres of corn, a 16% increase over 2019, even while most of the country is hunkered down to avoid spreading COVID-19.
Corn is a useful crop that can be used for food, animal feed, ethanol and for the production of alcohol. It is also Indiana’s top commodity, worth about $3.28 billion a year.
By some estimates, 75% of all grocery items contain corn of some kind, making Indiana’s output crucial for feeding the 329 million people who live in the U.S.
“The streets and public meeting places may be quiet, but work hasn’t stopped on our farms in America,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. “It’s our commitment, and we’re going to continue to supply food for this country, because we know that the food supply keeps us secure in our country.”
The food and agriculture sectors have been deemed essential critical infrastructure, meaning the U.S. government recognizes the importance workers in the sector, from farmer to grocery store clerk, have in continuing the successful operation of the U.S.
That designation means these sectors have a special responsibility to maintain their normal work schedule while following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to protect the health of workers.
“One of the reasons I’m really, really proud to be involved in this industry is, in times like these, I find that this industry just continues to be able to shine and show the world what great people we have in this industry, and we’re seeing it,” said Bruce Kettler, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.
Although the industry is confident in the year’s output, farmers face many unknowns as the public health crisis worsens.
One of the largest concerns is how the virus will affect the supply chain.
With up to 25% of all people who contracted coronavirus showing no symptoms, the virus could spread and affect many people throughout the state.
As of April 1, at least 65 people have died from COVID-19 in Indiana, and more than 2,565 people have tested positive for the virus.
Indiana State Health Commissioner Kris Box said the state may be in the beginning stages of a surge in cases.
“The big unknown is on the human side,” said Purdue University extension agronomist Bob Nielsen. “If you have a local retailer who sells seed, fertilizer or pesticide to these growers, and some of their employees come down with the virus and they either lose valuable employees for a couple weeks or they decide to close that outlet for a couple weeks, then that has the possibility of imposing some interruptions on getting these valuable crop inputs out to the farmers so that they do what they do.”
Federal officials have relaxed regulations in order to get much-needed supplies to essential sectors, including instituting temporary waivers to get more drivers on the road and removing federal restrictions on how many hours drivers can operate their vehicles.
In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued executive orders temporarily exempting drivers from state regulations that limit hours of service and automatically extending state-issued licenses for drivers and other occupations.
But, even without regulatory burdens, the virus may still affect the supply chain.
“It’s going to be a county by county, or even section of a county by section of a county kind of deal as to will I be able to get my seed in a timely fashion? Will I get my fertilizer? If I hire a co-op to spray my weed killer for me, are they going to be able to do it? Will they have the employees,” said Nielsen. “But, if a farmer is able to get all his inputs delivered, then it comes down to whether the farmer himself or his employees remain healthy.”
The potentially fatal virus is not the only concern for farmers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s spring outlook predicts above average levels of precipitation and at least a minor risk of flooding for the entire state of Indiana.
A similar prediction in 2019 turned out to be accurate, to the detriment of farmers. The state suffered above average precipitation, leading to an extremely late corn planting season.
Farmers were able to salvage the season due to a cool August that allowed the corn crop to survive.
“When we get into that kind of really rainy spring, it’s so rainy and the fields are so wet and soft that farmers literally can’t do anything,” said Nielsen. “When it does become favorable for farmers to be in the fields, then, of course, they’re always under a tremendous rush to get things done.”
Nielsen said it’s too early to tell how farmers will fare this year, but they can help themselves by being as prepared as they can to face the challenges ahead.
“It’s sort of a lame piece of advice to give farmers, in a way, but it’s still pretty sound advice. You don’t want to hold yourself up because you’ve forgotten to do something,” Nielsen said.
The state of Indiana’s Economic Development Corporation has established a Critical Industries Hotline to answer questions from farmers, drivers and other essential businesses. You can reach the hotline at 877-820-0890 or email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.