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Farm Bureau: COVID-19 could cost Nebraska's ag sector nearly $3.7 billion

Unless conditions improve in the coming months, Nebraska’s agricultural economy could face nearly $3.7 billion in losses this year related to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.

That sobering estimate was announced Wednesday by the Nebraska Farm Bureau based on a “snapshot” of revenue losses from key commodities including corn, soybeans, wheat, beef cattle, pork, dairy production, and fuel ethanol distilled primarily from corn.

The analysis doesn’t take into account any financial assistance ag producers may receive through state or federal COVID-19 relief programs including the CARES Act or farm program payments, said Jay Rempe, Nebraska Farm Bureau senior economist and author of the report unveiled for public consumption in a webinar and news release Wednesday.

Even so, Rempe said, the estimate “clearly demonstrates the magnitude of the financial challenges currently facing farm and ranch families and the potential impacts that could be felt across the broader rural economy.”

Rempe included a breakdown of the potential revenue losses by commodity, reflecting price declines that occurred between Jan. 1 and May 18.

The COVID-19 crisis began overseas in late 2019 and came into sharp public focus in the United States in early to mid-March, leading to social distancing recommendations, stay-at-home orders in many states, and the temporary closure of many businesses related to public health concerns.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau estimates of potential losses include $1.303 billion for the ethanol sector, $1.17 billion for corn and soybeans, $971 million for beef, $166.5 million for pork, $66.1 million for dairy and $8.7 million for wheat, for a grand total of $3.685 billion.

“To provide some perspective, $3.7 billion is more than 80 percent of the state of Nebraska’s entire budget,” Rempe said in the news release. “We are talking about the potential for major losses.”

The ethanol industry leads the way among estimated losers amid the COVID-19 crisis. The industry is being slammed financially in two different ways: first through reduced production and related loss of revenue stemming from the drop in demand for gasoline, and second through price declines for each gallon the industry does produce.

Nebraska’s ethanol industry currently is estimated to be operating at 65% of production capacity — up from 59% in March and April, but with eight plants still entirely idle and two others running at decreased capacity.

The state had 25 operating ethanol plants in 2018.

Rempe’s estimates assume the industry will ramp up production somewhat by August and operate at 75% of capacity from August through December.

A loss of $1.303 billion for the ethanol sector would equate to 34% of the sector’s total sales in 2017.

Rempe projects the corn and soybean sectors could lose up to $1.17 billion, including $613 million on the 2019 crop in storage and $554 million on the 2020 crop sold this year. The numbers are based on information from the Nebraska Corn Board on when crops are sold, 2019 crop production numbers, assumptions about the size of the 2020 crop, and differences in cash bids between Jan. 1 and May 18.

The potential loss would equal 14% of the state’s corn and soybean receipts in 2018.

The Farm Bureau report estimates potential losses of $971 million in the beef cattle industry, including $188 million in the cow-calf sector, $511 million in feeders, and $272 million in backgrounders and stockers.

The estimate for the cow-calf sector was developed using changes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture price forecasts for feeder cattle in 2020, which were applied to assumptions regarding the 2019 and 2020 calf crops.

For the feedlot and backgrounder sectors, Rempe borrowed per-head loss estimates developed by ag economists from several universities for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, then applied them to estimated Nebraska cattle numbers.

A loss of $971 million for the beef industry would equate to 9% of the state’s cattle and calves receipts for 2018, Rempe said.

The Farm Bureau pork estimate is based on a projection by ag economists at Iowa State University that hog producers could lose $37 per head for each animal marketed in 2020. The National Pork Producers Council reports that an average of 115 million head of hogs are marketed each year, and Nebraska accounts for an estimated 4.7% of the national inventory of market hogs.

A loss of $166.5 million for the pork sector would equal 20% of the state’s 2018 hog receipts.

The Farm Bureau’s projected potential loss for dairy is based on USDA price estimates for all milk between the January and May forecasts, along with assumptions for 2020 Nebraska milk production based on actual production for January through March.

A loss of $66.1 million for the dairy sector would equate to 28% of the state’s total milk receipts for 2018.

Rempe’s estimate that the wheat sector could lose $8.7 million related to COVID-19 is based on an assumption of average yields on the 920,000 acres of wheat seeded by Nebraska farmers in fall 2019.

“Wheat prices have not fallen as much as other commodities due to happenings in international markets and increased consumer demand for food staples,” Rempe wrote in his analysis.

The condition of Nebraska’s agricultural economy has major implications for the state’s economy as a whole.

According to the Nebraska Agriculture Fact Card developed by the state Department of Agriculture and the USDA’s National Ag Statistics Service, Nebraska had 45,900 farms and ranches in 2018, and agriculture accounted for one in every four jobs in the state.

Cash receipts from farm marketings in Nebraska contributed more than $21 billion to the state’s economy in 2018.

Steve Nelson, a Keene area farmer who serves as Nebraska Farm Bureau president, said the economic analysis presented Wednesday has serious implications for the state and nation.

“As we reach the halfway point of the year, we’re hopeful things will improve between now and December, but this analysis clearly shows how damaging COVID-19 has been to our agricultural economy and what we could be facing moving forward,” Nelson said. “We greatly appreciate the fact that our elected leaders have understood the importance and need for financial assistance programs so farmers and ranchers can continue to ensure the food supply for the people of our state, our country, and the world.”

Cristobal remnants head to Canada after battering Midwest

Associated Press

HOLLAND, Mich. — Severe thunderstorms accompanied by winds approaching 70 mph battered lower Michigan late Wednesday as the remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal moved out of the Midwest and into Canada.

Cristobal ended a trek from the Gulf of Mexico up through the midsection of the U.S. that caused flooding across the region, downed trees and power lines and damaged homes and businesses in Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa.

By Wednesday evening, about 2 inches of rain had fallen on Midland, Michigan, where the threat of flooding was enhanced by the failure last month of two dams along the Tittabawassee River following days of heavy rains. There were no early reports of flooding or damage.

A church roof was peeled away in southeastern Michigan’s Sanilac County. In Detroit, dark clouds unleashed a downpour before briefly yielding to sun in early evening, which was followed by another round of rain accompanied by strong winds and hail.

About 430,000 customers of the state’s electric utilities, Jackson, Michigan-based Consumers Energy and Detroit-based DTE Energy, were reported to be without power late Wednesday.

A line of thunderstorms pushed through Ottawa County in western Michigan on Wednesday morning. The city of Holland along Lake Michigan activated storm warning sirens as winds reached speeds of 70 mph, according to the county’s emergency management office.

Power lines and trees were reported down in Holland and other cities.

The weather service issued a gale warning through Wednesday evening on Lake Michigan because of the possibility of strong winds creating waves of 6 to 10 feet. Forecasters warned boaters, swimmers and paddlers to stay out of the water.

Hail reported as 2 inches in diameter shattered a vehicle’s windshield in western Indiana’s Dyer, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“Also, in that area, they got 2.13 inches of rain in 30 minutes,” meteorologist Ricky Castro said. “The hail report of 2 inches was windblown hail but the winds were probably near or over 60 mph along with the hail. The storm was quite as intense at that point.”

The Indiana Department of Transportation reported some lanes of Interstate 80/94 in Hammond were flooded after that rain.

Storms moving ahead of a cold front also caused flash flooding in and around New Orleans and prompted the closure of a section of intestate highway. The state highway department said a portion of westbound Interstate 610 in New Orleans was shut down due to high water.

Cristobal’s remnants moved into the Midwest after lashing the South. The storm weakened into a depression early Monday after inundating coastal Louisiana and ginning up dangerous weather along most of the U.S. Gulf Coast, sending waves crashing over Mississippi beaches, swamping parts of an Alabama island town and spawning a tornado in Florida.

Hastings College sticking with regular fall semester schedule

Hastings College announced on Tuesday that it would be bringing students back to campus for a regular fall semester schedule, but with contingencies in place in the event of further disruptions related to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

The plan was laid out this week in a letter to students and parents.

On Tuesday, the Great Plains Athletic Conference announced its plan to allow fall athletic practices to begin on Aug. 15, with competitions beginning in September, although schedules will be modified.

With fall practices scheduled, Hastings College set move-in dates for fall athletes, as well as all new and returning students.

Fall athletes will move in on Aug. 12-16, and coaches will notify athletes with details. Incoming first-year students move in on Aug. 15-16, with returning students to follow on Aug. 16-18.

The college is maintaining its fall schedule as planned, with classes beginning on Aug. 19 and wrapping up for the semester on Dec. 18. By contrast, some other institutions of higher learning in Nebraska are planning to modify their academic calendar so the fall semester can wrap up in late November.

If public health officials mandate a return to remote learning during the semester, Hastings College is prepared to do so, either at the start of a block as it did in March, or even during a block if necessary.

The college’s COVID-19 response team has created a number of plans based on various scenarios that could play out this fall. It’s likely directed health measures will change again over the summer, so HC officials are holding off on finalizing details while working in partnership with the South Heartland District Health Department, Mary Lanning Healthcare and other colleges to understand the best ways to create a safe and healthy environment for students.

Updates will be shared with students and posted on the school’s COVID-19 webpage.

Like all other Nebraska colleges and universities, Hastings College saw its spring semester disrupted by the novel coronavirus disease pandemic. Students left the college for spring break on March 12-13, then had to finish the semester from home through online instruction. A remote commencement ceremony was streamed on the internet May 16.

'Grief overload:' Families absorb multiple virus deaths

It may seem hard to imagine the cruel toll of the coronavirus getting any worse than losing one of those closest to you. But Johnjalene Woods has been dealt that pain three times over.

In a pandemic of countless sorrowful realities, it’s bringing a special kind of loss to people around the globe who are seeing their families shattered with multiple members succumbing to the disease.

“This generation, this level of my family has just been very quickly obliterated,” said Julia Chachere of Sag Harbor, New York, whose mother and stepfather died of COVID-19 four days apart. “All of a sudden, it’s gone. And all of a sudden, I’m that generation now.”

Though no data on the trend has emerged on families experiencing multiple fatalities due to the coronavirus, the stories have repeated around the world: Couples, siblings and other relatives falling ill and dying, their families left to rebuild life with a massive hole in it.

“This virus has taken so much from us,” said Sheila Cruz Morales of Teaneck, New Jersey, whose uncles — brothers Javier and Martin Morales, who lived one floor apart — died a day apart.

Not far from there, Joni Lewin was absorbing the loss of her lifelong best friend, Carolyn Martins-Reitz of Kearny, New Jersey, to the coronavirus, when Martins-Reitz’s son Thomas died a week later.

“They’ve lost half of a family,” Lewin said.

Moe Gelbart, a psychologist with Community Psychiatrists in Torrance, California, said families are finding their grieving process short-circuited by a pandemic that denies them final moments with their loved ones or normal funerals in which they can collectively mourn and embrace.

“Among stressful events, the death of a loved one or family members ranks No. 1,” he said. “Multiple losses within the same family ... is beyond overwhelming.”

As 94-year-old Saymon Jefferson was hospitalized with the coronavirus in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, he kept asking how his brother, 86-year-old Willie Lee Jefferson, was doing.

His family decided to spare Saymon the news that his younger brother had died in hopes of keeping his spirits up while he recovered. But within a few days, the older brother was dead, too.

“It just hit us so hard,” said Saymon’s daughter, Belvin Jefferson White. “It looked like everybody in our family was getting sick.”

Losing multiple loved ones at once isn’t unique to today’s pandemic. The flu that swept the globe in 1918 felled entire families. Accidents, natural disasters and terrorist attacks have claimed relatives, such as on 9/11, when one family saw two sons die, one a policeman, the other a firefighter.

The spectacle of five brothers aboard the USS Juneau dying in World War II was so horrifying that the U.S. military changed its policies to try and keep another family from being similarly decimated.

“People can go into grief overload,” said Dr. Varun Choudhary, a psychiatrist who oversees behavioral health for Magellan Health, an HMO. “The grief builds and accumulates.”

Woods knows that all too well.

The hairdresser from Gadsden, Alabama, had a happy existence living with her sister, brother-in-law and parents. Her cousin Michael Woods came around so often, he was almost like a brother.

Her father Billy was the first to fall ill, so sick he couldn’t even put his own socks on. Then her older sister Phacethia Posey caught it. And, finally, her cousin Michael.

And, in one horrible week, all three died.

If there’s any bright side, it’s that more didn’t perish. Woods and her mother also were infected and hospitalized and she still finds herself getting winded by the way the virus affected her lungs.

All three funerals were held the same day. Few could attend because of restrictions.

“There’s no answers why all of them had to leave,” Woods said. “I can ask the question all day.”