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Farmers concerned about COVID-19 impact on farms

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Seventy-three percent of respondents were moderately or extremely concerned about their farm being impacted by COVID-19.

Stress levels are high among America’s soybean farmers, so much so that the terms “stress,” “anxiety” and “concerns over mental health” were used dozens of times in an informal survey released by the American Soybean Assn. (ASA).

The survey was an initiative of ASA's COVID-19 Task Force, a 12-person group formed in March consisting of ASA board members and senior staff, state affiliate leaders and a representative from sister soybean organizations the United Soybean Board (USB) and the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC). It was sent to approximately 140 farmer leaders serving on the boards of ASA, USB and USSEC, with 60% of those people participating.

In many cases, as with feeling stressed and the need for improved internet access in rural America, the consensus was clear. “We were struck immediately by how many respondents talked openly about the high levels of stress and anxiety on their farms,” ASA chief executive officer Ryan Findlay said. “Fear at smaller operations that critical workers will get sick, concerns over taking care of elderly parents and children not able to attend bricks-and-mortar classrooms right now, worries over workers scared they will get sick not showing up — and that’s only the important human aspect before you even get into prices, loan access and aid concerns, input delays and a host of problems hitting tangential industries like pork, beef, poultry and dairy on which our industry relies.”

The responses included 86 anonymous surveys submitted, with answers coming from 26 of the 30 primary soybean-producing states and farms of various sizes. Questions addressed concerns and reactions to both employee safety and sustaining operations during the coronavirus outbreak.

An overwhelming majority – 82% – indicated that they are practicing social distancing, washing hands and other practices to minimize exposure, with very few (3%) indicating that they are not making any changes. Seventy-three percent of respondents were moderately or extremely concerned about their farm being affected by COVID-19. Forty-four percent said the pandemic has already affected their farms, and another 33% feel that trouble is likely on its way. While more than a fourth are uncertain about how to respond to exposure, most are working on plans for both employee safety and continuing operations should people become sick. Yet, the prevalence of open-ended responses citing fear and stress is deeply concerning.

In response to the question, “Do you feel that you have adequate procedures in place to help protect you or others working on your farm if someone were to test positive for COVID-19?” an estimated 38% said they are uncertain right now how to handle it. The responses revealed that 33% are working on a plan to ensure that planting continues, and another 27.4% are working on a plan to assure safety. Twenty percent said they have a plan in place for that person and the safety of other workers, and 28.6% said there is a plan in place to assure that the 2020 crop is still planted.

“It is even more evident that we must all be aware of the importance of checking on our neighbors, making sure they have resources not just to farm but to maintain both physical and, importantly, mental health in what is an ongoing time of extreme stress in our ag communities. For soy, we have felt impacts first from China trade issues and now from coronavirus that are compounding an already weakened farm economy. We want to do our part at ASA to protect grower interests in [Washington] D.C. and assure their well-being on the farm,” Findlay asserted.

Regarding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act, 55% are unsure if the CARES Act offers adequate relief for agriculture, and another 40% said it does not. Additional aid resources and clarity on existing resources were requested, with interest high regarding the CARES Act programs such as the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL), which program farmers are ineligible for at this time. H-2A worker inclusion, Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) funding and other financial assistance-related answers were common.

Kevin Scott, ASA vice president and chair of the association’s COVID-19 Task Force, said, “A clear need for additional aid was expressed by the bulk of soy growers who responded to the COVID-19 survey, so [the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] announcement of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) could not be more timely. We appreciate USDA and the Administration for their continued support of agriculture during the coronavirus pandemic and especially appreciate that CFAP will include soy.”

ASA is hopeful that other needs will be addressed as well. When asked if COVID-19 has highlighted the need for rural broadband, a whopping 85% replied that there is a serious need for improvements on either their own farms or their neighbors’ farms.

As with family safety, the future of farming was a concern, with respondents mentioning funding younger farmers and preserving programs like FFA and 4-H.

The objective of the ASA COVID-19 Task Force is to collect information on how COVID-19 is affecting soybean farmers and share that information with national leaders as well as to communicate information from national leaders to soy farmers and the agricultural community.

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