By Gary Truitt
Writing about what is going to happen in 2021 is like trying to lick your elbow. It is almost impossible — why would you want to even if you could? Thus, I am not going to try either. I will, however, point out a few trends that will likely occur in the new year that will have an impact on agriculture. What makes even this a risky venture is the uncertainty surrounding how long the pandemic will last and how deep the changes will be that result. Yet, to a greater or lesser extent, these trends will have an impact.
Where, what, and how people will buy, prepare, and consume food will undergo some fundamental and prolonged changes as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. In 2020, we saw people cooking and eating more food at home. This was made necessary by the closing of restaurants and restrictions on public gatherings. After the panic binge buying of the early days of the crisis, people tended to buy larger amounts of food to limit trips to the grocery stores. Meal kit home delivery services sprang up in 2020 and became an overnight sensation. These will continue to grow in popularity, and this entirely new food service sector is likely here to stay. Conversely, cafeterias and all you can eat self-serve places will likely decline as consumers are more aware of contamination and close contact with strangers.
What we will eat will likely include more vegetables. Industry statistics show a 30% increase in vegetable purchases since the pandemic began. Healthy eating will continue to be a theme in 2021, with any food attributed to have health benefits being a hot item. The National Pork Board reports that ground pork sales have increased with more people cooking at home. Once only considered for pork burgers, ground pork is now becoming an ingredient in many easy to prepare at home dishes.
Sourcing food from local areas will continue to be a trend. More and more on-line platforms now make it easier to obtain local food delivered or with nearby pickup. This represents a new opportunity for farmers looking for a second crop or sideline business. Small scale meat processors are gearing up for increased business in locally produced meat. Even some dairy farmers are finding processing and selling their own milk to be a profitable venture.
The packaging of food both in the food service and retail sectors will change. Pre-packaged will continue to be the trend. Bulk bins, piles of fresh produce, and open containers of food products are seen as possible areas of contamination. Sealed and sanitized packages will become more and more common. Just as drinking fountains and water coolers have disappeared, the self-serve soda fountain station may soon follow.
The availability of COVID-19 vaccine may begin to bring some normalcy back to our daily lives, yet our values, impressions and preferences have been changed by this experience. As a result, 2021 will not just be a return to 2019. There have been and will continue to be fundamental and systematic changes that have taken place in our society and economy. Agriculture’s ability to pivot and adapt to some of these changes and to find ways to profit from them will be key in the coming year.