Yes, 2020 brought both widespread drought and, in places, excess rain. Yes, it brought a derecho, "365-day corn," special government payments, more appreciation for agriculture and, until late in the year, continued concern about poor crop prices. And, yes, it brought a much-appreciated smooth harvest.
But first, foremost and always, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the coronavirus pandemic. On a business level, the pandemic affected individual agribusiness operations and the entire food supply chain. On a personal level, it changed the way that farm families and other Americans lived and worked.
For many agriculturalists, the years tend to run together over time, with key events from one year merging in memory with what happened in previous or following years. Not 2020. For everyone who lived through it, 2020 will stand unforgettably as the year of COVID-19.
Here's a quick look back at some 2020 highlights:
- Many Upper Midwest farmers, especially in North Dakota, remain glum and frustrated over the 2019 harvest. Extraordinarily wet fall weather hampered harvest, forcing some crops, particularly corn and sugarbeets, to be left in fields.
- The first COVID-19 case in the United States is reported in Washington state.
- St. Paul, Minn.-based Kemps announces it will close its Southeast Rochester (Minn.) milk plant on June 30. About 125 people work at the plant, which packages fluid milk, cream, half-and-half and other fluid dairy products.
- A new USDA report shows that the generations-old consolidation of U.S. farms is continuing. One of the few exceptions is cow-calf operations, as well as pasture and rangeland associated with them, in which little consolidation is occurring.
- Farm income projections for 2020 are mixed. An anticipated decline in federal direct payments is a big factor in the advance estimates.
- President Donald Trump declares COVID-19 a national emergency. At the time and later, critics claim he's politicizing the crisis and underestimating the danger.
- The U.S. Congress passes the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which provides direct payments to Americans and expansions in unemployment insurance.
The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, marks its 35th anniversary. American landowners enroll more than 3.4 million acres in the new CRP general signup. Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota enroll a combined 700,000 acres.
- The U.S. food supply chain is roiled and, in places, overwhelmed by the pandemic. Americans are eating less away from home and more at home, disrupting where and how food needs to be distributed.
- Warming weather allows spring planting to pick up speed. Even so, there's concern about a potentially late harvest.
Jerry Hennessey, convicted fraudster and former manager of an Ashby, Minn., co-op, requests "compassionate release" from prison and asks for home confinement instead. Later, he's diagnosed with asymptotic COVID-19. His request is denied.
- USDA begins taking applications for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP. More than $10.3 billion ultimately is paid to U.S. ag producers hurt by the pandemic in the initial program.
- But Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota and to a lesser extent Montana farmers enjoy excellent planting progress. Iowa farmers are far above the five-year state averages for corn and soybeans.
- Dry conditions grow increasingly worrisome in most of the Upper Midwest, though Minnesota on balance avoids the drought.
- Reflecting what's happening elsewhere in society, many summer farm show and meetings are conducted online because of the pandemic. "Zoom" takes on a new meaning.
- Warm temperatures, which continue later into the summer, help to provide many fields with the heat units needed to overcome late planting.
- Heavy, just-in-the-nick-of-time rains early in the month rescue many failing fields, especially in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. Though some fields already are damaged by inadequate moisture, the rains prevent far greater losses.
- Some area farmers finally finish combining 2019 corn.
Many livestock producers worry about what they see as extreme volatility in cattle markets after production and sale of U.S. beef were disrupted by the pandemic. They're not satisfied by a USDA report that doesn't say whether the Packers and Stockyards Act was violated.
- Rural areas that are pandemic hot spots face lack of intensive care beds.
- Generally dry weather boosts small grains harvest, a welcome change from the soggy fall of 2019.
- Grasshoppers, an old foe of Montana farmers, return in force in the central and eastern parts of the state.
- A second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP 2, is announced. Up to $14 billion is expected to be paid out.
- Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington bring huge amounts of smoke to surrounding states, with wildfires in Montana contributing to the problem. Montana ag producers are affected.
- Prices of some U.S. crops, particularly soybeans, continue to rise. Increased purchases by China are a major factor
- Continued dry weather accelerates harvest, especially in Iowa and Minnesota.
- Former U.S. Senator Mark Andrews, R-N.D., dies at 94. He's remembered for his strong ag roots in the state and his deep understanding of ag, both at home and in Washington, D.C.
- In response to cattle market volatility, the U.S. Department of Agriculture begins making small changes and will work with Congress and industry to make more.
- COVID-19 cases began to spike in some rural areas that previously had largely avoided the pandemic. Rural hospitals are stretched even further.
- President-elect Joe Biden is widely expected to take a different approach in ag trade issues from President Trump. Biden's future strategy is anticipated to involve working more closely with allies and to be less unilateral.
- A Gallup poll finds that farming and agriculture is the nation's top-rated industry. The pandemic, which increased the public's awareness of ag's importance, is at least partially responsible for that.
- USDA statistics show that 2020 U.S. farm income will rise to one of the highest levels in history, thanks primarily to special, one-time federal payments.
South Dakota legislators approve the final rules to get the state’s industrial hemp program up and running.
A third round of coronavirus relief payments to farmers is announced. Producers and ag processors left out of previous aid programs this year while be helped this time. Other assistance, including help for renewable biofuels and new benefits for rural health providers, will be available, too.
- Upper Midwest agriculturalists hope winter or spring precipitation will recharge fields now short of moisture in advance of 2021 spring planting. They also hope the worst of the pandemic is behind them.