By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
POCATELLO – The coronavirus outbreak has not slowed Idaho farmers’ plans to produce food this year.
“Agriculture is moving forward and nothing’s changed,” said Idaho Barley Commission Executive Director Laura Wilder. “It’s business as usual.”
Roger Batt, who represents several Idaho farm organizations, said he’s hearing the same message: “Basically, it’s business as usual. Farmers are out planting or getting the groundwork ready and preparing for this production season.”
That’s good news for two reasons: People need to eat and, according to a University of Idaho study, agriculture is responsible for one of every eight jobs in the state as well as 18 percent of Idaho’s total economic output.
So, while the impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has on the state’s economy is expected to be severe, agriculture will act as a type of stabilizing force on the Idaho economy.
While many businesses and services have ground to a halt or decreased significantly during the virus outbreak, agriculture is plowing ahead.
Cows still need to be fed and milked and a farmer will spend roughly the same amount each year on inputs – labor, seed, fertilizer, etc. – regardless of how much they get for their commodity.
Idaho leads the nation or ranks in the top three in 11 agricultural commodities and ranks in the top 10 in 25 farm commodities.
Those rankings shouldn’t change much this year, based on a USDA report released March 31 that offers the year’s first glimpse of farmers’ planting intentions for certain crops.
According to the report by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Idaho farmers plan to plant more wheat, hay corn and dry beans this year than they did in 2019. Idaho farmers’ potato planting intentions won’t be known until late June.
The NASS survey, which was conducted during the first two weeks of March, included about 80,000 farm operators across the nation.
According to the NASS report, Idaho farmers expect to plant 1.21 million acres of wheat this year, a 1 percent increase over 2019.
Nationwide, wheat acres are expected to total 44.7 million acres, down 1 percent from 2019 and the lowest level since records began in 1919.
U.S. wheat acres have been declining for the past two decades.
However, U.S. farmers are expected to plant 97 million acres of corn in 2020, 8 percent more than they planted in 2019. Idaho farmers expect to plant 400,000 acres of corn this year, up 4 percent compared with last year.
U.S. soybean acres are expected to total 83.5 million acres, up 10 percent. Idaho farmers do not grow soybeans except for a few field trials.
Idaho’s expected increase in wheat acres “reflects the fact that Idaho has a very stable wheat industry,” said Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson.
He said Idaho wheat acres might actually rise more than the 1 percent increase estimated by the NASS survey.
The recent run on many grocery items included a lot of wheat-based foods such as pastas and flour, Jacobson said.
“There is going to be a replenishment of those items that is going to occur,” he said. “Winter wheat is already in the ground but I actually think spring wheat acres will come in higher than the report says just because of the changes that have happened since NASS did its survey.”
In an April 1 Market Intel report, American Farm Bureau Federation Economist Shelby Myers wrote, “Wheat expectations remain lackluster; however, recent surges in demand for wheat products could lead to last-minute shifts in planting decisions over the next few weeks.”
According to NASS, Idaho barley acres are expected to decrease 6 percent to 510,000. However, Wilder said the barley commission is re-surveying the major contractors of Idaho barley and she expects Idaho barley acres to be on par with 2019 or even up slightly.
“Based on what I’m hearing from the major (buyers) of Idaho barley, the acres will be about the same as last year,” she said.
NASS expects Idaho dry edible bean acres to increase 2 percent to 48,000. Idaho Bean Commission Commissioner Don Tolmie said bean acres will be up nationwide as well.
Bean prices were already on the rise before the coronavirus outbreak gripped the nation and now American consumers are buying even more dry beans than normal, Tolmie said.
“People are in quarantine and gathering foodstuffs and dry beans are flying off the shelves,” he said.
NASS estimates that Idaho farmers will harvest 1.35 million acres of hay in 2020, up 4 percent from 2019. Nationally, hay acres are expected to increase 2 percent.
Idaho sugar beet acres are expected to remain essentially unchanged at 168,000.
Oat, lentil, dry edible pea and chickpea acres in Idaho are expected to decrease this year.
Idaho mint acres – peppermint and spearmint – will total about 17,000 this year, the same as last year, said Batt, executive director of the Idaho Mint Growers Association.
JC Management Co. President Clark Johnston said he does not expect the virus to have a significant impact on growers’ planting intentions.
JC Management, which is based out of Utah, contracts with Idaho Farm Bureau Federation to help IFBF members develop individual marketing plans for their farm commodities.
Johnston said farmers and ranchers should not make drastic changes in their plans for the 2020 season based on the latest swings in commodity markets.
“Guys should plant what they normally plant instead of chasing this market around,” he said. “If they do that and stick to what they were planning to do this year, things are going to be OK for them.”
According to Myers, the USDA prospective plantings report, which is the first survey-based estimate of crop production for the upcoming marketing year, typically produces reactions from markets, “but those seem to be overshadowed by COVID-19 concerns.”
“With the circumstances of the pandemic ever-changing, there is still time for growers to alter their planting intentions, especially if they want to react to any emerging consumer trends or if significant weather delays push planting later, as it did in 2019,” Myers wrote.
“Given the uncertainty and unprecedented times of COVID-19 in the U.S., producers will decide whether to react to volatile markets or stay the course with their planting intentions,” she added.
A much clearer picture of 2020 crop acreage in the United States will be revealed when USDA releases its next crop acreage report on June 30.
While farmers and ranchers are moving ahead with their normal food production plans this year, they are also going out of their way to try to prevent spread of the virus and protect their workers, Batt said.
“For anybody with employees, their top priority is the health of their workers,” he said. “They’re all taking the necessary precautions that the president and governor and health professionals have laid out.”