Trending Topics on Farming and the Food Supply During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Empty shelves at the grocery store

There’s no doubt times are tough right now. With so much to navigate — new routines, extra responsibilities and ongoing stress — we can easily get worn down. As we look for the positive amidst the worry, we’re encouraged to see more people taking an interest in where their food comes from.

Maybe you’re curious why some of your favorite foods are harder to find. Maybe you’re wondering why some prices are going up. Maybe you want to know why food seems to be going to waste. Maybe you want to know how you can help support local farmers. 

So, we’re breaking down some trending topics on farming and our food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic to help you understand what you’re seeing at the grocery store and how that relates to different aspects of agriculture.

Demand, Supply and Supply Chains

Restaurants are closed and the grocery’s out of stock on food. What gives? Is there a food shortage?

Farmers have agreements to sell their products to all sorts of customers. Some sell direct to consumers. Some sell their products to other businesses for processing. Some sell to companies responsible for supplying restaurants. Those retail relationships take time to establish and it’s not that easy to just turn around and sell to someone else

It’s also not easy for food processing companies to shift how they produce and package products for consumers. The government has different requirements for food going for institutional use (think schools and restaurants) versus food for personal use (think grocery stores). As demand for food in restaurants and schools has ground to a halt, the demand in grocery stores has skyrocketed. But consumer food processing companies can’t handle incoming product at the same level.

There’s a great (and simple!) infographic of the supply chain — how food actually gets from farm to table — from The Center for Food Integrity. If something can’t operate as expected in one link of the food supply chain, the entire chain is affected. That’s what we’re seeing right now.

Dairies Disposing of Milk

Let’s look at milk products. From small containers of chocolate milk in schools to individual pats of butter in restaurants to that familiar gallon of milk at the grocery store, the supply chains for schools, restaurants and retail are altogether different right now.

While the end product is milk or butter no matter where it ends up, the packaging and retailing are completely different. A food processing operation might need to produce thousands of small containers of milk for schools or pats of butter for restaurants. Their facilities aren’t set up to switch to larger packaging or convert individual sizes for retail purposes.

Many farmers are looking for ways to work with different companies, but establishing those connections takes time. And some processing companies may not be operating at full capacity, which means there’s no place for the food to go.

While some farms have the capability to process their food and sell direct to consumers, not every farm does. For example, not every dairy farm has its own bottling facility.

Hildebrand Farms Dairy in Junction City has been lucky to continue operating because they have a pasteurizing and bottling facility on site.

However, early on many farmers ended up with lots of milk, but no place to send it to be processed or sold, which means they had to dispose of large vats of it (sometimes called “dumping milk”). They’re the last people who wanted to waste their hard-earned investment. After all, they still had to pay to take care of their animals, only to watch all that time and money go down the drain.

“Understand, dumping the milk is something we don’t want to do. We all work hard. The reality is the logistics issues mean we have more milk than what we can use.” Justin Ohlde, Ohlde Family Farms, Linn, KS, and Kansas Dairy’s board of directors

But, there’s good news. Kansas farmers have not had to dispose of milk since April, thanks to creative ways of managing the milk supply. Some dairy farmers reduced their milk production, while some processing companies shifted to producing less perishable items like cheese and powder.

Legislation has also helped dairy farms send some of their products to local food banks. This means less food going to waste and more helping the needy. Midwest Dairy donated $500,000 to food banks across the Midwest and farmers are finding ways to give back even though times are tough through community grants.

Ranchers and Meat Shortages

In your local grocery store, you may have seen higher prices on meat, limits on the amount of meat you can buy or low to no stock on certain types of meat. (It was six weeks before I was able to find chicken!)

Like dairy farmers, cattle ranchers and poultry producers also face challenges that can be traced back along the supply chain. With some meat processing facilities cutting back on production because of COVID-19 outbreaks among employees, fewer cattle can be sold to these facilities for harvesting. This means ranchers, who expected to generate income on their cattle, are seeing increased expenses instead because they have to continue to feed and care for their animals until they can be sold.

Part of their feed and care includes specialized dietary supplements which come from distillers grains. Distillers grains are highly nutritious byproducts of ethanol production, which is made from many grains grown in Kansas. With the lower demand for gas as people shelter in place, ethanol production slows down too, which means lower availability of distillers grains for ranchers trying to feed their cattle. See how complicated this all is?

There are meat products in cold storage, but just as with dairy products, it’s not easy to flip a switch from processing in bulk to individual retail. (Most of the meat we see at the grocery store is consumer-ready with specialized cuts and smaller quantities, unlike meat kept in cold storage.) One potential relief to the supply chain would be if grocery stores are able to use their on-site equipment to process more meat, which could ease some tension on the processing side.

As with dairy products, the meat is out there. It’s just having a hard time making it to your table.

Farmers and Business

Before COVID-19 swept across the globe, economic conditions were already hard for farmers. The global pandemic only complicates trade and exports, a reality that hits close to home as it affects much of the food we produce in Kansas. Farmers who grow crops like corn, sorghum and soybeans are feeling an even harder pinch of falling commodity prices.

Until they can sell their crops at a favorable price, farmers are responsible for storing it, which can eat up more resources. With planting season for many of these crops well underway, farmers are working on faith. Like all of us, they don’t know what will come. But stopping production isn’t an option for them.

“Sickness is hitting food manufacturing workers and slowing their production rates — which all means a few less items on the shelves at the grocery store. But don’t worry — they are coming — because farmers are still growing crops, raising animals and producing milk.” Katie Sawyer, Sawyer Family Farms, McPherson, KS

What You Can Do

With so many things beyond our control, it’s helpful to concentrate on the things we can. There’s probably not much you can do to speed up the food supply chain. But there are a few things you can do that will make a difference:

  • Buy Direct: Some of our colleagues in the world of Kansas agriculture have created a Facebook group to connect farmers with consumers looking to buy local. Although the group is moderated, purchases made are beyond their authority. So, shop and sell with integrity!
  • Farmers' Markets: Some farmers markets are running, even though they might look a little different with social distancing and personal protective equipment requirements. Reach out to see if your local farmers market is operating and whether they have  protective procedures in place.
  • Support Food Banks: With impacts to the food service industry, many more people are suffering from food insecurity. If you have room in your budget for charitable giving, consider donating to your local food bank to help feed hungry people in your community.
  • Be Flexible and Adventurous: With so many kitchen staples in short supply, we are having to do without some of our go-to ingredients. Embrace the adventure and try some new foods like sorghum. Kansas is one of the largest producers of sorghum, but a lot of people aren’t familiar with it. This whole grain can make a great substitute for rice and couscous. And, it’s healthy!
  • Educate Yourself: Our friends over at Kansas Living Magazine, which is produced by the Kansas Farm Bureau, are working hard to share stories about how COVID-19 is affecting Kansas farmers. Visit their website to learn more about what’s happening in your community from the people who know food best — the ones who grow it.
  • Ask Questions: You’re not alone! A lot of people are curious about how COVID-19 is affecting the food supply. Check out answers to frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and food by Best Food Facts.

And, of course, follow us on Facebook where we’ll be sharing feel-good recipes and stories, as well as COVID-19 updates.