Letters to the Editor

On the COVID-19 Frontlines in Rural Communities

Letters may be emailed to edit@dtn.com or mailed to Greg Horstmeier, 9110 West Dodge Road, Omaha, NE 68114.


To the Editor:

Expanding circles over urban areas on maps of the United States have recorded the frightening spread of COVID-19. The contrast between outbreaks in cities and the paucity of similar circles in many rural areas has fueled "red state v. blue state" political rhetoric. This unfortunate development sends the wrong message about the impact of COVID-19 on farms and rural communities, which face their own health and economic crises that deserve wider national attention.

As a fifth-generation farm owner and operator in Nebraska and CEO of Farm Foundation, I have had many "virtual kitchen table" conversations in recent weeks with family members, farmers, agribusinesses, and food companies in the Cornhusker state and all over the United States. These candid talks reveal deep unease about the health threat that COVID-19 poses to rural areas, which already experience severe problems with access to health services. As A.G. Kawamura in Orange County, California, told me, protecting employees from COVID-19 and accessing additional labor are becoming increasingly difficult.

My conversations with stakeholders in the agricultural sector also involve worries about the proliferation of economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 emergency, which create new threats and exacerbate pre-outbreak problems. On his farm in upstate New York, Klaas Martens encounters the unusual combination of increasing demand and falling prices in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Opportunities provided by increased demand for some products come with concerns about the growth in unpaid accounts receivable. Access to credit -- already a serious problem for farming operations -- has become a bigger issue as COVID-19 upsets economic dynamics from farm to fork.

The agriculture system has been resilient in the face of ongoing challenges, such as extreme weather, uncertainty with export markets, and labor shortages. However, resilience is becoming harder and more expensive to sustain. The pandemic puts even more strain on the people, businesses, services, and policies that have made American agriculture critical infrastructure for the country.

Farms and rural communities face the same two COVID-19-created challenges as urban areas -- overcoming the immediate crisis and planning for the post-pandemic future. For farmers, an urgent feature of the immediate crisis is getting the new growing season started successfully, a task always filled with the uncertainties that weather, labor challenges, weeds, and pests create. At this moment, all players in the agricultural sector must collaborate to ensure that the relief policies and funding coming from the federal government achieve maximum impact.

Looking beyond urgent issues, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agriculture, combined with the pre-existing rural challenges, requires a new strategy in order to ensure that this rapidly evolving sector strengthens its resilience and its ability to adapt and innovate in a changing world. This strategy must encompass the traditional strengths of U.S. agriculture, as well as emerging activities, such as the urbans farms that the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation is establishing to overcome food deserts in East St. Louis.

Crafting this strategy will require integrating policy leadership from federal and state governments with the field-level entrepreneurial energy apparent throughout the United States. Awareness about the need to develop a new long-term strategy is building across the land. Now is the time to grasp this responsibility, even amidst the travails of COVID-19. With farms and rural communities on the frontlines of battling this pandemic and building the future of agriculture, we should move to establish a National Commission on the American Food and Agriculture Enterprise to sow and harvest the best ideas and innovations for keeping agriculture vital to the health and wealth of the nation.

-- Shari Rogge-Fidler, CEO, Farm Foundation and a Nebraska farm owner/operator