ASA survey: Soybean farmers share COVID-19 concerns, needs

Stress levels high over family and worker health, need for rural broadband, qualification for and clearer access to essential resources; USDA CFAP announcement opportune for soy

Stress levels are high among America’s soybean farmers, so much so that the terms “stress,” “anxiety,” and “concerns over mental health” were used dozens of times in an informal survey released this week by the American Soybean Association (ASA).

The survey was an initiative of the ASA COVID-19 Task Force, a 12-person group formed in March consisting of ASA board members and senior staff, state affiliate leaders, and a representative from sister soybean organizations United Soybean Board (USB) and U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC). It was sent to approximately 140 farmer leaders serving on the boards of ASA, USB and USSEC, with 60% of those persons participating. In many cases, as with feeling stressed and the need for improved internet access in rural America, the consensus was clear.

“We were struck immediately by how many respondents talked openly about the high levels of stress and anxiety on their farms,” says ASA CEO Ryan Findlay. “Fear at smaller operations that critical workers will get sick, concerns over taking care of elderly parents and children not able to attend bricks-and-mortar classrooms right now, worries over workers scared they will get sick not showing up — and that’s only the important human aspect before you even get into prices, loan access and aid concerns, input delays and a host of problems hitting tangential industries like pork, beef, poultry, and dairy on which our industry relies.”

86 anonymous surveys were submitted, with answers coming from 26 of the U.S.’s 30 primary soybean-producing states and farms of various sizes. Questions addressed concerns and reactions to both employee safety and sustaining operations during the coronavirus outbreak.

An overwhelming majority – 82 percent –indicated they are practicing social distancing, washing hands, and other practices to minimize exposure, with very few (3 perfect) indicating they are not making any changes. 73 percent of respondents were moderately or extremely concerned about their farm being impacted by COVID-19. 44 percent said the pandemic has already affected their farms, and another 33 percent feel trouble is likely on its way. While more than a fourth are uncertain how to respond to exposure, most are working on plans for both employee safety and continuing operations should persons become sick. Yet, the prevalence of open-ended responses citing fear and stress is deeply concerning.

“It is even more evident that we must all be aware of the importance of checking on our neighbors, making sure they have resources not just to farm, but to maintain both physical and, importantly, mental health in what is an ongoing time of extreme stress in our ag communities,” Findlay says. “For soy, we have felt impacts first from China trade issues, and now from coronavirus, that are compounding an already weakened farm economy. We want to do our part at ASA to protect grower interests in D.C. and assure their well-being on the farm.”

Regarding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, 55 percent are unsure if CARES offers adequate relief for agriculture, and another 40 percent said no. Additional aid resources and clarity on existing resources were requested, with interest high regarding CARES programs such as the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL), which program farmers are ineligible for at this time. H-2A worker inclusion, Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) funding and other financial assistance-related answers were common.

Kevin Scott, ASA vice president and chair of the association’s COVID-19 Task Force said, “A clear need for additional aid was expressed by the bulk of soy growers who responded to the COVID-19 survey, so USDA’s announcement of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) could not be more timely. We appreciate USDA and the administration for their continued support of agriculture during the coronavirus pandemic and especially appreciate that CFAP will include soy.”

ASA is hopeful that other needs will be addressed, as well. When asked if COVID-19 has highlighted the need for rural broadband, a whopping 85% replied that there is a serious need on either their own farms or their neighbors’ farms for improvements.

As with family safety, the future of farming was a concern, with respondents mentioning funding younger farmers and preserving programs like FFA and 4-H.

There were a few answers given that provided levity. In response to supply disruptions, one person responded, “toilet paper,” and another, asked about impacts, said his wife may have to cut his hair. Lastly, when challenged with additional resources needed, a respondent commented, “Help dealing with the spousal unit working from home!”

ASA does take all answers seriously and is seeking ways to use the insights gained from the survey to better assure the profitability, physical safety, and mental well-being of its members. The ASA COVID-19 Task Force and ASA staff will use the materials submitted to assess ways to best communicate with leaders in Washington, D.C., and collaborate with the soybean community to effectively serve the soy industry and protect its interests during the pandemic.

The objective of the ASA COVID-19 Task Force is to collect information on how COVID-19 is impacting soy farmers and share that information with national leaders, as well as to communicate information from national leaders to soy farmers and the agricultural community.

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