By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The effects of pandemics on agriculture
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor remains unchanged from last week and all but extreme western Kansas is in good shape with moisture. Wheat is continuing to make progress but still a bit behind. The moisture is beneficial but if this trend continues, producers may need to examine wheat closely for fungal diseases for fungicide application. The seven-day average soil temperature at two inches is 48 degrees and 50 is what is desired for to start corn planting. Ideally, dryland corn planting should be starting within two weeks, weather permitting. The six to ten day outlook (April 1 to 5) has normal to below normal precipitation and normal to above normal temperatures for the western two-thirds of the state. Looking out eight to 14 days (April 3 to 9) indicates above normal to above normal precipitation and normal to normal to above normal temperatures. The 30 day outlook is for equal chances of above or below normal temperatures and normal to above normal precipitation with the 90 day outlook predicting above normal temperatures and equal chances of below or above normal precipitation.  

With all of the concern with Covid – 19 and the runs on food stocks, let’s examine the possible effects of this pandemic on agriculture and food supplies.  

• First, all levels of government realize that agricultural production and the industries that support it are essential for the country. This insures that agricultural producers and the industries that support them have a priority to stay open. Just keep in mind that while our view of agriculture is corn, soybeans, wheat, cattle, etc., across the country agriculture refers to a broad range of foodstuffs.  

• Spring crops should be planted, wheat harvested, and animal operations will produce and finish livestock. Most of these types of operation and highly mechanized and require relatively few workers. Plus they have the added benefit that social distancing is fairly easy to maintain.

• Second, there is no shortage of food. Panic buying and hoarding have not allowed the normal supply chain to keep up. We created this artificial shortage. If you go into stores now, food stocks are being replenished and if people quit hoarding everyone will have more than enough food available.

• This doesn’t mean that choices may not diminish and certain food may occasionally run short. There are two types of food stuffs – more perishable items that are constantly being picked such as certain types of produce, certain dairy products, and certain types of meat; and more stable items such as canned and frozen goods, processed products and flour. And some of the produce you eat everyday such as potatoes and apples can be stored for extended periods of time and have been for decades. This leads to the next point.

• A shortage of more perishable items is possible for two main reasons. First, items such as strawberries, tomatoes, etc. require more manual labor and fairly constant picking. We already have a shortage of workers in these areas for several reasons so an infected workforce would present a challenge. Second, pay attention to the labels in the produce section and you will notice many products we can now purchase fresh year-round come from overseas – Mexico, Chile, etc. – and the pandemic might interrupt supplies. Might.

• Remember that we have a nationwide distribution system relying primarily on trucks and rail. Obviously, if the virus sidelines these individuals, there could be disruptions. The positive for these workers is that they are in their normal routine fairly isolated and the exposure danger arises form fueling up and eating which are being addressed.

• One final note about possible disruptions involves those processing our foods for consumption from slaughter houses to all the processing facilities. Things such as slaughter, meat processing and processing of foods may slow down if the workforce is impacted. Two items here. First, while a great many are employed here, it takes relatively few people for most of these operations, especially of processed items as they are extremely mechanized. Animal slaughter would be an exception. And the people processing and selling you your food already have stringent food safety controls in place under what is termed HACCP. This would include safety regarding Covid-19.

We have a safe abundant food supply. Agriculture will continue to produce what they always have and some sectors have already ramped up to meet demand. Be smart and be safe.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.