By Gary Truitt
The non-stop, media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a lot of new faces showing up in news reports. Celebrities, big business CEOs, sports figures, and elected officials have been replaced with medical experts, doctors, healthcare workers, first responders, small businessmen, retail cashiers, Amazon delivery guys, and teachers. These are the people on the front lines of the battle to slow the spread of the virus and who are keeping our economy moving while the rest of us shelter in place. Farmers have also found themselves in this spotlight as the availability of food is a concern.
Dairy farmers were among the first to make headlines when retail stores started running out of milk and people assumed it was due to a milk shortage. This was not the case as it was a logistical problem resulting from sudden panic buying of milk. Within a few weeks, news stories started focusing on the millions of gallons of milk that was being dumped because the market had collapsed and there was literally no place to take it. The fact that the shutdown of schools and the restaurant industry would drastically cut the demand for milk never occurred to most consumers or to the reporters covering the story.
Egg producers faced a similar situation. Just as there is no off switch on a cow’s milk production, there is no overdrive switch on a chicken’s egg production system. The sudden surge in demand for eggs caught the industry by surprise, and a shortage in the retail chain resulted. At the same time, the demand from the food service sector collapsed but simply switching those eggs into stores came with a whole host of logistical, packaging, and regulatory problems. Again consumers got mixed messages with limits on retail egg sales and with news stories of eggs being thrown away.
Fruit and vegetable growers came in for criticism when the media showed crops rotting in the field or being plowed under, while food banks were trying to serve people who had lost their jobs. Again logistics and regulations make this easier to say than to do. There were also several news and social media posts that claimed the virus could be transmitted on the surface of fruits and vegetables – a claim rejected by scientists.
Unfortunately, two stories that did not get reported as much as they should involved the charity of farmers and the contribution of biotechnology to the search for the cure. Not only did commodity groups including the American Dairy Association of Indiana arrange for milk to be provided to child care and adult care facilities and the pork producers arrange for pork meals to be sent to food banks, but individual farmers made contributions in their own community.
Keep in mind that this all comes at a time when farm income is down and farmers face a good deal of uncertainty about their operations. Yet, many stepped up and made donations of a variety of materials to local hospitals. One such case was Marshall County Farm Bureau President Charlie Houin who donated a number of masks that he uses on his farm for dust to Marshall County hospitals.
Corn and soybean checkoff funds are being used to help teachers and parents struggling with e-learning. “The Checkoff’s focus in our charter is education, promotion, and research,” said the CEO of Indiana Corn and Soybean, Courtney Kingery. With education relegated to the home for students and educators and even parents, Checkoff online teaching resources are proving timely and valuable. “Nourishthefuture.org contains virtual classroom work on things like plant breeding, plant science, energy,” she explained. “It’s got lesson plans and activities targeted really toward middle and high schoolers. So, if families, if teachers can visit Nourish the Future they will have access to all of those resources free of charge.”
In the past few weeks, there have been countless news stories on finding the cure. What too often gets lost in the simplification of the science is the fact that biotechnology is playing a key role in this search. When a vaccine is eventually discovered, it is likely that some gene editing or biological manipulation will be part of it. Will people refuse to take it because it is “GMO”? This will not eliminate bioitechaphobia overnight, but it may begin to lessen the fear of this perfectly safe science.
As Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Bruce Kettler recently observed in an op-ed piece, stress and uncertainty is not new to agriculture.
“There is always a sense of stress about what is happening on the farm and where the economy is headed. This constant sense of uncertainty makes agriculture one of the most stressful jobs. But, you remain resilient. You look ahead, global pandemic or not, you’re still going to order feed, seed and supplies. Widespread disease or not, you’re still going to prepare the planter and equipment.”
So let us take heart and hope in each new day. Let the promise of a new crop or a new calf renew our spirits and calm our hearts.