Market Moos: COVID-19 impacts how consumers are supplied with food

By Sherry Bunting, excerpt updated from Market Moos in Farmshine, March 27, 2020

Ten days into the 15-day COVID-19 “flatten the curve” mitigation strategy, supermarkets are still scrambling to remain supplied with in-demand food items — including milk, especially whole milk, dairy products, especially butter, eggs and beef.

Nielson data show nationwide fluid milk sales were up 32% last week, dairy products like butter (up 85%), cheese and yogurt up over 50%, egg sales up 44%, and beef sales, including ground beef, up 77%!

Walmart and other supermarkets have started setting limits on how many gallons of milk or cartons of eggs or packages of butter can be purchased per customer, meaning shoppers will be making more frequent trips to feed their families and supply their older loved ones.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding sent a message out on various television news programs Wednesday evening, asking the state’s consumers to “stop hoarding food” and to “think of others who may need the food.”

Unlike toilet paper (and there’s more to that story too in terms of paper product imports), what we are seeing with food essentials is not “hoarding.”

What may not be clear to state and national ag and government leaders is that consumers are not hoarding food, they are buying what they need for a week at a time (to avoid multiple trips exposing them to multiple people). Their grocery lists are more full because for most of them, their whole families are home all day and evening with schools closed and all non-essential businesses shut down.

In addition, many shoppers are buying provisions for elderly parents or neighbors to leave on their porches for them.

This is not “food hoarding”, this is providing for one’s family now that families are not being institutionally-fed according to the government’s rules restricting calories derived from animal products at least one or two meals at least five days a week.

This is a major shift in where the supply chain needs to focus its distribution of the abundant milk and beef that farmers are producing, but is meeting a severe tamp-down in terms of base pricing, production penalties being deducted from milk checks, and over this past weekend even the dumping of milk due to what industry leaders say is “processing disruption” or “loss of foodservice and hospitality trade” despite huge increases in retail purchasing indicating supply chain shifts. (See more on that here.)

A dilemma for some farms that have transitioned into direct sales to get closer to end-users, is that their businesses often rely on people assembling through agro-tourism, farmer’s markets, events, and casual dining restaurants that are more geared to dining-in than taking-out.

Some of these diversified and direct-to-consumer dairy, beef and farmsteading operations have large and fairly recent processing equipment and marketing investments and now must limit access to the consumers their businesses served.

A provision in the $2 Trillion COVID-19 federal aid package is $9.5 billion for livestock, dairy, and specialty crop producers that are part of “local food systems” where their marketing is impacted by COVID-19.

Farms that have developed consumer-facing businesses may also qualify for “bridge” loans to small businesses that are also part of the package.

Meanwhile, dairy, beef and ag organizations are beginning to also raise a concern to USDA to be alert to price manipulation as sales and value to processors is rising rapidly with the surge in demand for dairy and beef, while the prices paid to dairy and beef producers is falling rapidly in the other direction as both milk futures and live cattle futures plunged.

American Farm Bureau Federation even raised this concern, along with transportation and labor as three points of vulnerability on farmers’ minds.

A spokesperson for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association expressed NCBA’s concerns in a CNBC business news interview indicating that farmers and ranchers selling cattle once a year as their income for the whole year, felt the huge drop in live cattle on the futures market for fats and feeders. This can break an operation selling cattle at this juncture, after the tough year last year.

Meanwhile, boxed beef prices are rising rapidly, to where processor margins are $600 profit per head, whereas farm losses are more than $100 per head. This also happened a year ago when the relationship between farm pricing and wholesale to retail pricing was equally inverse, showing massive profit-taking at the processing level and big losses for cattle producers for many months after a fire at one beef processing plant in Kansas.

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