Despite the challenges we have faced since early 2020, a few glimmers of hope are appearing that could turn 2021 in a much better direction. Some of these glimmers could grow into long-term victories for farmers.
The biggest positive news is that less than a year after COVID hit our communities, multiple vaccines are already battling the virus. As bad as the COVID situation has been, it would have almost certainly have been far worse had it arrived on our shores even five or 10 years earlier.
The miraculous biotechnology research that led to the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech was still only theoretical until the past couple of years. In fact, the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are the first instances in which the new process has worked in practice. Already, researchers are testing vaccines against Ebola, Zika and influenza. Scientists are cautiously optimistic they could apply the technology to diseases like cancer and cystic fibrosis.
While these breakthroughs are most important for humans, they also hold tremendous promise for preventing and ending disease outbreaks in animals. Farmers commit enormous time and resources to protect animal flocks and herds from infectious diseases. The possibility of safe, quick and effective vaccines against illnesses like African swine fever and avian flu could be a game-changer for agriculture. More importantly, it would be great news for the animals farmers and ranchers care for every day.
The agricultural economy is also showing strong signs. After falling off a cliff in early 2020, most commodity markets made an enormous comeback in the latter half of the year. Prices for corn, soybeans and wheat rose to levels not seen in seven or eight years. Prices for animal proteins have not had quite that much success, but they bounced back from their mid-2020 lows and are hovering near pre-pandemic levels. Dairy farmers are still struggling with a volatile market, but perhaps it will stabilize at a strong price as consumer patterns get back to normal.
Booming exports to China have driven at least some of the broad improvement in market prices. The Trump administration’s U.S.-China Phase One Trade Agreement, signed in January 2020, included Chinese promises to buy over $36 billion of agricultural goods in 2020. The pandemic’s onset slowed implementation over the next few months, but China imported over $23 billion of U.S. agricultural goods in 2020. This nearly matched the previous record-high year of 2017. Chinese imports continue to speed up, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting strong purchases of corn, soybeans, sorghum, pork and beef.
We still have a long way to go before we’re out of the woods, but there is reason to be hopeful in 2021. As always, farmers are optimistic about what the next year may bring. Hopefully we can look back on this year as the turning point to a bright future.