By former USDA Secretary John R. Block.
Look back to when this year started – economists and ag experts were all predicting an increase in net farm income. We had a trade deal with China which would give a dramatic boost to grain and meat exports. Nothing could stop us. Then came coronavirus. In the beginning we didn’t expect that little problem halfway around the world could hurt us. In February Rob Johansson, USDA Chief Economist had this to say – “we expect to see a $3.1 billion bump in net farm income. It should be a better year on the crops side and livestock side.” Unless something unexpected comes out of the blue to rescue us, it will be a tough year. Corn and soybean prices have fallen more than 20%. Cattle and hogs are down more than 30%. Net farm income is expected to fall by $20 billion. With the world economy frozen because of the virus, it is not likely that international demand will come up and bail us out.
There are some positive numbers that should help to lift our spirits. February pork exports to China surged 544% above last year. For the first 2 months of this year, our pork sales to Mexico, Japan, China were up 42% above last year. Beef exports beat last year by 21%. Chicken hit a 6 year high. Some of these export numbers are impressive, but I think as the virus has come to dominate the world, it will be almost impossible to sustain an export surge. Having said that, I still expect China to step up and honor the commitment to buy our products. That could make a big difference. Also, federal government money could be a lifeline. If the economies around the world, including our own, could go back to work, that would help. The coronavirus has ended up shutting down a number of very important processing plants. That has hurt farm prices for most animals.
Anything we can do to get the food system back to normal will be helpful. Opening restaurants would be great, but we’re not ready yet and when we do, we can expect social distancing and limits on the number of people allowed in. Yes, the food and ag industry is paying a big price but so are many other workers. Thank you to our doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. We all must support each other and fight our way to the finish line.
John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill. If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, just go online to www.johnblockreports.com.