While farmers are hurting in the coronavirus economy, how badly depends largely on where they are selling their crops and livestock.
“If your normal place to drop your corn is an ethanol plant, and that ethanol plant is shut down, absolutely it’s having an effect,” said Seth Meyer, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri.
But Meyer said that even for the corn farmers who sell to ethanol plants that are still running, or to some other sector, the lack of demand for ethanol because of lower fuel consumption means they are hurting, too.
“That weak demand is spreading out to affect the overall corn price, to be sure,” Meyer said.
All six of Missouri’s ethanol plants are running, but at reduced capacity. In Illinois, some plants have closed, and others have also cut production.
Even though grain farmers are struggling, they are better off than livestock producers.
“You can store grain, and producers planting now have some time to try to make better decisions,” said Kevin Bacon, agricultural economics professor at Western Illinois University. “But when a pig has to go to market, it has to go.”
Several meat processing plants closed down or went to limited shifts because of coronavirus outbreaks among their workers. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week requiring meat processing plants to stay open, which may help some farmers in the short term.
But that still leaves a lot of uncertainty in the agricultural markets.
“In Missouri, we raise a lot of feeder cattle. So if the future of the finished cattle looks questionable, then nobody wants to pay up for the feeder cattle, either,” said Meyer.
Neither Meyer nor Bacon believe consumers will see much of an impact from the uncertain agriculture markets.
“I think at the grocery store, some certain kinds of varieties and cuts of meat may not be available for short periods of time,” said Meyer. “But I don’t anticipate any shortages.”
As with most industries, the effects of the coronavirus are unprecedented on agriculture. But it’s unclear if that means there will be any substantial changes to the complicated and specialized food production system in the U.S. that is dominated by large corporations.
“Will smaller, more local food systems start looking more attractive because of coronavirus? Perhaps,” said Bacon. “But with consumers, it always comes down to the price they see on their food at the grocery store. And our current system is built to follow that.”
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