Dan Ward plans to start harvesting his peanut crop in a few weeks.
In February, Ward signed a contract with Birdsong Peanuts to grow shell peanuts for concession stands at Major League Baseball stadiums. The ink dried just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread closures across the United States.
For Ward, a seventh-generation farmer growing peanuts, corn and soybeans in the Bladen County town of Clarkton, COVID-19 hasn’t changed much on the farm. Yet.
The pandemic has kept baseball stadiums closed to fans, which means all of the peanuts harvested on Ward Farms last fall are sitting in storage. The crop that is currently in the ground is supposed to be distributed to ballparks for the 2021 baseball season.
Thanks to the production contracts, Ward was paid for his crops. But the abundance of unsold peanuts makes Ward, immediate past chairman of the National Peanut Board, concerned about the fate of his future contracts.
“We have a good price for the peanuts we have in the ground now,” he said. “There’s a glut of good peanuts that are packaged, in cold storage and available to sell, (and peanut companies) are trying to run specials on or export them so that the crop we’re getting ready to dig in two weeks will have a place to go in the market.”
Forecasting agricultural demand
Farmers across the state are in similar situations: The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, forcing farmers to switch their production plans to adapt to changing market needs.
In the Coastal Plains region, where row crops are among the major agricultural products, farmers were expected to plant less cotton, flue-cured tobacco and soybeans in 2020, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The pandemic has been positive for wheat growers; production is expected to increase 66% thanks to pandemic-inspired baking binges.
Crop forecasts are just part of the picture, and Ward notes that planting decisions could change.
On Ward Farms, if contracts for the 2021 peanut crop don’t come through, Ward would be forced to switch his crop mix, planting more corn, soybeans or cotton and reducing the number of acres planted in peanuts. The problem: Commodity prices have been down for five years.
“(Farmers) have been operating below the cost of production for five years,” he says. “We’ve used up all of our equity … it’s not just us; all farmers are in the same boat.”
COVID-19 has also affected international trade, making it harder for farmers in the Coastal Plains region to get their crops from farm to market. The Farm Bureau reported that net exports of cotton, grains and feeds experienced significant declines.
Exports of fresh market crops such as cucumbers and sweet potatoes, which are plentiful in Wayne County and other areas of the Coastal Plains, also declined.
Kevin Johnson, county extension director for Wayne County, notes that farmers who sold their crops to grocers or are under contract to manufacturers, including Mount Olive Pickles in Mount Olive, have fared well during the pandemic.
“COVID has affected a lot of farmers (and) it’s placed some burdens on growers, especially if farmers or farmworkers were diagnosed with the virus,” Johnson said.
“Overall, we haven’t seen that it’s been a huge hindrance for the farmers in this part of the state.”
Animal agriculture hardest hit
Livestock producers have experienced the biggest disruptions to their operations due to the pandemic, with the Coastal Plains region home to many of them.
Pork producers have an 11-month pipeline of pigs, moving animals from gestation and farrowing through growing and finishing.
COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants caused widespread processing bottlenecks, forcing producers to keep animals on the farms, according to Gene Nemechek, a veterinarian who is interim CEO for the N.C. Pork Council.
“When the slaughter plants and processing facilities were unable to take pigs because (of COVID-19 outbreaks among workers), pigs couldn’t be moved out of the growing barns to make room for the next pigs,” Nemechek adds.
“If something interrupts pigs going into the market, it all gets backed up.”
To adapt, producers modified rations to keep pigs from growing too big; the adjustment helped cut costs but did not alleviate concerns that pigs might have to be euthanized if the bottleneck was not addressed.
The National Pork Producers Council estimated that more than 10 million pigs might have to be euthanized this year due to COVID outbreaks creating processing backlogs.
The federal government declared processing plants “critical infrastructure” to prevent widespread plant closures, and pork producers were able to adjust their operations, scaling back their breeding programs, which prevented the need for mass euthanasia on North Carolina farms, Nemechek says.
“When you don’t breed as many animals, there are fewer animals in the supply chain,” Johnson said.
“If farmers don’t have as many animals, their paychecks are smaller; it also affects the processor, and eventually, it’ll affect the consumer, who will struggle to find the prices they want or the prices will go up.”
Recognizing the ripple effects of widespread closures, Nemechek noted that many meatpacking plants increased operations, running the plants six days per week to catch up with the backlog, adding, “Things are pretty close to normal again.”
Adjustments part of business model
Even though the 2020 farming season has forced farmers to adapt and innovate, Johnson believes most of the farmers in the Coastal Plains region are accustomed to adjusting to risk and doing their best to adjust to pandemic-related operational and market shifts.
“You have to be positive in agriculture,” he said. “You have good years and bad years and, overall, agriculture hasn’t been affected as much as other parts of the economy.”
For Ward, it might be business as usual on his farm right now, but the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the business of agriculture remain to be seen.
“Most peanut production in North Carolina is already contracted to a sheller, so we have a market for this season’s crop,” he explained.
“We may not feel direct effects at this second, but long-term effects could be substantial.”