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OK...it's once again time for your audacious commentator to give his hot takes on the agriculture stories that will make news in 2021. This year I've enlisted the help of Homer Simpson who truly knows something about predicting agricultural events before they happened (witness the Simpson take on a horsemeat scandal and the invention of the “tomacco plant”).  And if that doesn't work, I've got a whole new box of fortune-telling goodies including a crystal sphere, my grandmother's tea cup and a rooster.

Before we dig into 2021 let's review the Blazin' Five from 2020:

Farm Bankruptcies

2020 farm bankruptcies were driven by the White House ongoing trade war with China, the coronavirus pandemic, and cash flow problems created by adverse growing seasons 2018 and 2019 and low commodity prices.  

Although end of the year numbers for 2020 are still months away 580 farm bankruptcies were reported between June of 2019 and June of 2020 – that's 8 percent higher than a year earlier. USDA reported farm debt by August had grown to more than $425 billion, despite a record $33 billion in farm subsidy payments handed out by the federal government. 

In April we dug into the problem with our interactive data base.

Mental Health on the Farm

At least 450 farmers in nine midwestern states killed themselves between 2014 and 2018. Numbers are hard to come by and even the best estimates are likely under-reported. A Center for Disease Control report issued last January found the farming is among the occupations with the highest suicide rates.

Farmers in the first half of 2020 faced unprecedented economic hardships (in the second half of the year commodity prices rebounded to multi-year highs) while at the same time had limited access to mental healthcare providers. 

A few state governments, notably Iowa, Ohio and Iowa, have attempted to hire more psychiatrists in rural communities and provide financial assistance for farmers in need of mental care. But much, much more needs to be done on the federal level.

Agricultural Land

In 2019 agricultural land values fell 14 percent in Iowa, 4 percent in Indiana, and 3 percent in Illinois. More depreciation was likely in 2020, but for the moment land values have stabilized.

The American Farm Bureau reported in August that 2020 land values were unchanged from 2019 with U.S. cropland value on average at $4,100 per acre. Farmland values were up 1.6 percent in Illinois, 1 percent in Ohio and 0.3 percent in Indiana. But farmland value fell 1.7 percent in Iowa. 

With the rally in commodity prices in the second half of 2020 and the potential end of the coronavirus pandemic farm land values could rebound further in 2021.

Water

Farm water related shortages did not in a significant way enter the U.S. public debate in 2020, but it is just a matter of time before water will become a huge issue. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations paints a bleak picture in their 2020 report of the State of Food and Agriculture. FAO reports in the face of world population growth that in the last two decades the annual amount of available freshwater person has fallen more than 20 percent. By and large, the U.S. is a nation of water haves in the land of have nots. But unabated, unchecked climate change could easily change that relationship.

Climate Change

Long-term moving forward there's nothing more critical to our survival as a planet than a world-wide coordinated response lowering carbon and other chemical release in to the atmosphere to stem greenhouse gas warming. 

In the past four years the White House and their cadre of climate deniers have made that job more difficult. Climate change might not had been the head line issue for the November elections, but incoming president Joe Biden is wasting no time in ushering in a new era. 

Before the inauguration Biden has elevated climate change to a national security issue with the naming of six nominees including former EPA chief Gina McCarthy as the newly created White House National Climate Adviser.  Biden also says the U.S. will be rejoining the Paris Accord for Climate Change.

And with the former POTUS no longer in the picture a bi-partisan group of Democrats and Republicans signaled they were ready to tackle the issue by declaring in the coronavirus relief bill last month that it is the “sense of Congress” that the Energy Department prioritize funding for 100 percent “clean, renewable, or zero-emission energy sources.” 

The bill legislation also cuts the use of hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air conditioners, extends tax credits for research and development of green-energy sources and reauthorizes an EPA program that could reduce diesel engine emissions. Biden was quick to say this is just the start of what will be required during his term in office.

Alright, on to 2021. We'll touch on these topics in brief but expect a whole lotta' bloggin' in 2021. Don't fail me Homer....

The new normal is well...normal

Let's tell the truth. The past four years the USDA, FDA, and EPA have more resembled “Days of Our Lives,” than competent, well-intentioned, organized governmental agencies. From EPA climate-denying chief Scott Pruitt to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue's gutting of the agency's Economic Research Service to the intentional and systematic downsizing of federal inspectors at FDA to permitting increased greenhouse gas emissions to the failed trade war against China the White House followed its own self-serving agenda.  Budgets slashed. Looser food safety regulations. 

President-elect Joe Biden has picked former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack to try to clean up the mess. But whether Vilsack is up to the task of shepherding permanent, lasting change on behalf of the nation is up for debate. Vilsack catered to Big Ag business interests a lot in his eight-year stint under Barack Obama. That won't cut it this time.

Climate Change Reform

As if. 

Hey if you're a climate change denier the world is your oyster. The White House spent 2020 making it easier to release greenhouse gas into the atmosphere by rolling back regulations. But to be fair Democrats have whiffed on climate change when they were in power over the past several decades. For example, way back in 1997, Bill Clinton's administration signed what was then the groundbreaking Kyoto Protocal global climate treaty but Congress failed to ratify the deal and Clinton successor George W. Bush threw it in the nearest dipsty dumpster.

I blogged climate change was the most consequential ag story for 2018.  It made the Blazin 5 in 2019And 2020. Climate change got top billing throughout the year....here, here, here and here

The effects of decades of denial are now all around – 2020 is set to be the hottest on record, massive fires in California, a record number of huricanes in the Atlantic and the unprecedented melting of the polar ice cap has created enough gloom and justified doom that there's a chance something useful might get done this year. 

The U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on November 4. Biden says the U.S. will rejoin the accord on day one of his administration and he calls for a climate change summit in the first 100 days of his presidency. Biden is appointing former EPA chief Gina McCarthy and long-time climate change disciple John Kerry to serve as climate czars to oversee domestic and international policy. But given the last four years, the international community is going to need to see more than words from the incoming White House. A lot more.

A COVID-19 Reckoning

The Midwest Center for Investigative Journalism spent much of 2020 reporting on the inadequate federal response to COVID-19.  What has become clear is that when it came to agriculture the feds and Big Meat were not up to the challenge of keeping meatpacking employees safe. Big Meat deliberately concealed vital health data from health agencies to keep the lines running at top speed. 

Well, the public has been paying attention to not just labor and equity issues created by COVID-19 but systematic long-term abuses of food service workers.  With a new administration, Big Ag is on notice. The feds are sure to require greater transparency and equity.

The China Trade War/Farm Income and Lending

The White House has spent the past four years mostly chasing its own tail when it comes to seeking a more equitable trade policy with China. 

The measuring stick that makes most sense for judging U.S. agricultural policy with China is whether U.S. trade sanctions and tariffs brought about real fundamental change to Chinese economic practices. The verdict? A resounding no.

Farmers received more than 23 billion dollars in federal bailouts in 2018 and 2019 to supplement incomes due to potential lost exports to China.  And what did the U.S. get from China in return? This past January the White House trumpeted its new Phase 1 trade deal with China. But the unvarnished truth is that the U.S. got totally snookered. 

The deal required China to ensure an additional $32 billion in U.S. agricultural purchases over two years above the 2017 baseline. China will fall far short of that promise. As for dealing with China's economic practices?  That thorny issue was mostly kicked down the road to a mythical phase 2 negotiation. 

But with the White House blaming China directly for the COVID-19 pandemic relations have chilled. As for the tariffs they leveraged little; there was some increased trade in non-agricultural U.S. products. China has learned in its dealings with the U.S. that, with elections every four years, to delay, delay, delay. 

Until U.S. lawmakers pass strong, permanent systematic policies to compel China to act differently, and the White House holds honest meaningful conversations with China that create mutual trust it'll be like the movie “Groundhog Day.” 

And it's time to wean farmers from governmental subsidies due to the trade war with China. Commodity prices in late 2020 have rallied to multi-year highs. As I write this December 2021, corn futures are at $4.60 a bushel – four cents away from the highest level since May of 2014. November soybean futures are trading $12.68 a bushel, the highest level since August of 2014

There's no question farmers have gone through a few difficult years. For example, the Administrative Office of U.S. courts reports 149 Chapter 12 farm and fishery bankruptcies in the third quarter up from 115 in the second quarter. But farmer income prospects are significantly improved for 2021, especially if ag lenders can get farmers through spring planting.

Plant-Based Food...you ain't seen nothin' yet (and regenerative farmland)

It turns out that consumers like plant-based foods. A whole lot. And it isn't just brands like Beyond Meat, Oatly and Impossible Foods doing the selling.  Big Meat companies including Tyson and JBS are riding the it-ain't-meat gravy-train. Sales of plant-based products are going through the roof. You don't have to be a phytologist to understand sales of plant-based foods will continue to rise in 2021. 

Some of it will be driven by consumers' increased awareness of problems with meat production caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And a new word will soon be on your radar. Expect regenerative agriculture to become the next big thing by the close of 2021. Huh? Regen-er-ative what????  Farming. In a nutshell, regenerative farming's primary goals are to sequester carbon, conserve water, improve air quality and manage soil health. In part, regenerative farming requires landowners to become more responsible for being part of a climate change solution by embracing no-till planting, and routine use of cover crops. 

How quickly regenerative farming becomes a norm will depend to a significant degree on whether there's buy-in from food producers. General Mills is leading the way at the moment, promising to convert one million acres from traditional to regenerative farming by 2030

Expect other food companies looking to burnish claims of sustainability to follow.

And there you have it. 

The agricultural Blazin' five for 2021. If some things are off-target...blame Homer.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.