It's been a tough year for farmers. As if nature wasn't enough of a challenge, coronavirus left farmers fighting not only for their own survival but also to keep food on America's tables. Scott Thuman follows the season and one family, from planting to harvest.
Scott: Early summer in Southern Virginia. On this farm, the corn and cotton crops have just gone in, now it’s a waiting game, hoping the months ahead bring good weather and regular rain. For Shelley Butler Barlow and her family, who’ve been here for generations, this is one of the most stressful periods of the year, and just getting to this point is an achievement in 2020.
Shelley Butler Barlow: We actually had the conversation of not planting anything this year, which is unprecedented, which everyone is using that word right now, but it is, we’ve never had that conversation before. We always are taking risks, and we’re always weighing our options, but it just feels very different this year.
Scott: COVID-19 has made this year ‘different’ for farmers everywhere. When restaurants closed, many small farms like this one in Maryland lost nearly all their business. Virus outbreaks shuttered meat processing plants. Farmers relying on immigrant labor struggled to find workers. And when dairy farmers couldn’t get their milk to supermarkets and coffee shops, some had to pour it away. From the start of the crisis, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue had to deal with a set of problems that even worried the president.
Secretary Sonny Perdue: President Trump called me and said, “Do we have enough food? I mean, is the United States going to run out of food?” You can imagine, as we saw the meat cases kind of go down at one point, what kind of panic and terror that could have really led to had that been allowed to continue.
Scott: Were we close to a point that was critical on that issue?
Secretary Perdue: We were close to a point in our meat processing plant with the COVID infections of the employees there. Threading that needle of how do you keep the employees safe while keeping meat cases filled was a real challenge.
Scott: On top of the pandemic, farmers had been having a difficult time for several years: commodity prices have trended down as equipment and labor costs have gone up. Farm bankruptcies are up again this year, and the trade war with China has disrupted long standing business relationships.
Butler Barlow: Backing up, pre-pandemic, all of the trade war stuff had already hit us hard in ways that I don’t understand. I know we needed to make some changes, but I think that the techniques that are being used are just crazy. I mean, you have an excellent customer, so you’re going to beat him with a stick to get them to do what you want.
Scott: There are definitely some farmers who are still upset with the president because they say trade war could be tweaked, didn’t need to be blown up.
Secretary Perdue: I feel like many of them I talked to are coming to the realization that China had been playing us for a long time. This was the first president who had the courage, knowing it was going to be painful, knowing it was going to be painful to some of his constituency there, being the agricultural base there. That would take the steps to write the wrongs that have been done for China over twenty years.
Scott: Keeping farmers going during the trade war and the pandemic has meant a succession of programs to provide billions of taxpayer dollars to farmers.
Scott: Can the government keep putting that money out there?
Secretary Perdue: The goal obviously for trade policy is for farmers to grow it and to sell it at a profit. That’s what farmers want to do, and that’s what we want them to do.
Scott: It’s a difficult balance.
Secretary Perdue: How do we have programs that really meet the needs of the farmer without going off the, off the edge of the road on either side? We don’t want to make it programmatically so lucrative that farmers farm for programs rather than a marketplace.
Scott: Mid-September, we returned to Shelley Butler Barlow’s farm to check in. The corn harvest has begun, but it isn’t going to be a great year. Not because of the pandemic, but because of something much more familiar to every farmer.
Butler Barlow: We went five weeks with no rain, which is devastating, and then it started raining again, and then it’s been wet again. So, we’re never happy, farmers are never happy, you know. Whatever it’s doing, we wish, you know, if it’s raining, we wish it would stop, if it’s not raining, we wish it would rain. So that’s just the nature of the beast.
Scott: Across the nation, and on farms everywhere, there are few who will be sorry to say goodbye to 2020.
Sharyl (on camera): So what government support are they getting?
Scott (on camera): Well, more money. Last month, President Trump announced plans for an extra $13 billion in aid for farmers to help them get through this unprecedented year.
Sharyl : Thanks a lot Scott.