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Report details economic pain of COVID-19 for Nebraska agriculture

For Nebraska agriculture, which has been on a farm income “roller coaster ride” over the past decade, the onset of COVID-19 last spring brought a stomach-turning drop.

That’s the picture painted by a newly released economic analysis of the novel coronavirus disease and its impact on the state’s ag sector.

The report, unveiled Sept. 23, was produced by the Platte Institute, a Nebraska-focused conservative think tank, and the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, which is the state’s largest general farm organization.

The document explains how the onset of the pandemic — and the public health measures enacted to help thwart it — hurt agriculture by upending supply and demand for food, fuel and fiber — for example, closing restaurants and school lunch rooms and taking vehicles off U.S. roadways.

The document is titled “Disruptions from COVID-19 on Nebraska’s Agriculture.” The authors are Sarah Curry, policy director at the Platte Institute, and Jay Rempe, Farm Bureau senior economist.

In the 14-page report, the authors explain how the pandemic in March hit Americans where they live, drastically changing consumption habits in a way that scrambled supply chains and hurt farmers’ ability to sell their products.

First, Curry and Rempe say, the hospitality, restaurant and institutional food sector, or HRI, essentially shut down in mid-March as travel was restricted, restaurants closed their dining rooms, and schools, colleges and universities closed their campuses and went to remote learning delivery for the balance of the spring semester.

Altogether, HRI accounted for a remarkable 54% of all food consumed in the United States prior to the pandemic.

Suddenly, however, consumers needed to cook and eat their meals at home — and that’s a different ballgame from a supply-and-demand standpoint.

“Since the HRI and retail grocery segments have completely different supply chains, supply chains were ill-equipped to deal with the shutdown of one demand segment and meet the onslaught of demand in the other segment,” Curry and Rempe wrote.

At the same time shoppers were “sprinting to grocery stores” to fill their pantries with food, paper products and other consumables, they were parking their vehicles, abandoning plans for vacations, road trips and most non-essential travel.

Demand for motor fuel tanked as a result — another major blow to farmers whose crops serve as feedstock for ethanol plants around Nebraska.

“Estimates suggested that at one point, gasoline consumption was off 36% in 2020 compared to the same period last year,” Curry and Rempe wrote. “The immediate impact for Nebraska agriculture was the idling and slowdown of ethanol production as less ethanol was needed for blending into gasoline.”

But even as corn producers lost a key market, livestock producers, many of whom depend on feed co-products of the ethanol industry, were sent scrambling after alternatives for their rations.

“The first punch, with its demand destruction and uncertainty, caused commodity prices to spiral downward,” Curry and Rempe wrote.

April brought more pain for the ag sector as COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants across Nebraska and beyond began to interfere with plant operations.

Before long, the slaughterhouse queue was backing up and consumers began to notice price increases and even product shortages at the meat counter.

“Between complete shutdowns, reduced operations and slower speeds, the processing facilities were operating between 60-70% of capacity at one point,” Curry and Rempe wrote. “Livestock prices plunged. The situation was exacerbated by large cattle and hog inventories coming into the year.”

Livestock producers unable to deliver their slaughter-weight animals to processors on schedule were forced to seek alternatives — and keep incurring feed costs. In the most dire situations, some producers euthanized animals as a last resort to stop their own financial hemorrhaging.

“The situation has greatly improved, and processing has returned to near pre-COVID-19 levels with facilities operating extra hours,” the authors wrote. “However, it will take some time for the clogged supply chains to clear.”

For farmers, the last decade has been a feast-or-famine economic proposition, with high prices in 2011, 2012 and 2013 prompted by drought, export demand and ethanol production eventually falling under pressure from record crop production, trade difficulties and stabilizing ethanol demand. Land values eventually started to drop a bit, but not on a pace commensurate with declining farm income.

Over a four-year period after 2013, net farm income in Nebraska fell 69%, to $2.3 billion. Since then, the income number has trended up with help from federal trade assistance payments.

Curry and Rempe cited the most recent projections from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bureau of Business Research showing net farm income in Nebraska for 2020 will be down 23% year-over-year from 2019, with federal payments accounting for 50% of the total.

In June, Nebraska Farm Bureau released an analysis showing that, based on a “snapshot” of revenue losses from key commodities and livestock, the state’s ag sector could take nearly $3.7 billion in losses this year due to COVID-19 if economic conditions didn’t improve. That loss figure didn’t include financial assistance from state and federal COVID-19 relief programs, however.

The losses projected in the June report included $1.17 billion for corn and soybean farmers, $971 million for beef producers, $166 million for pork producers, nearly $66 million for dairy farmers and $8.7 million for wheat farmers.

“The estimates assumed prices wouldn’t improve for the remainder of the year,” Curry and Rempe stated in their September analysis. “With the time remaining in 2020, price improvements can change these figures markedly to the better. Yet, the results still demonstrate the potential magnitude of the financial challenges facing farm and ranch families.”

Pandemic relief programs now benefiting farm country include the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, two programs created under the federal CARES Act; and other relief packages established to target agriculture specifically, such as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, along with regular farm programs.

According to the Platte Institute/Farm Bureau analysis, 21,977 agricultural jobs in Nebraska were preserved in recent months because of the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans to small businesses to help them maintain payroll, hire back laid-off workers and cover overhead costs such as rent and utilities.

Nebraska businesses have received 42,497 loans under PPP amounting to more than $3.4 billion.

CFAP, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, assists ag commodity and livestock producers who suffered a price decline of 5% or more, or who faced supply chain disruptions. As of Sept. 8, Nebraska producers had been allocated $679 million through the program, with 60% going to livestock producers.

Shade, Boeve are candidates for HPS board

Chris Shade and Jim Boeve are among six candidates vying for five seats on the Hastings Board of Education during the general election.

Other HPS school board candidates on the ballot are Sharon Behl Brooks, Brent Gollner, Laura Schneider and Rod Goodin.

The candidates have been featured two at a time in three consecutive issues of the Hastings Tribune, starting with Saturday’s edition and concluding today, Tuesday.

Chris Shade

Chris Shade has a list of priorities, and serving on the Hastings Board of Education fits right in as part of that.

“Family, schools and the community are definitely on my heart,” he said. “Our lives (he and his wife Stephanie) have reflected that through our teaching and our adopting kids and having kids. That’s just a priority. I obviously have a love and respect for Hastings Public Schools because I taught there, too, and I care about our community’s future, which is all these kids.”

Shade, 51, of 711 North Shore Drive is running for a first term on the school board. He was a public school teacher for eight years, six of which were at Hastings Public Schools as an instrumental music instructor and band director.

“It’s a way for me to serve my community and be involved,” he said of potential board service.

He has lived in Hastings for 22 years.

Shade owns Shade’s Classic Cars, 1016 S. Burlington Ave., which services, restores and sells Corvairs.

He and Stephanie were both music teachers in Hastings.

They have eight children ranging from 21 to 2 years old.

While the Shades have home schooled their children since 2009, the family has been been involved with Hastings Public Schools with children involved in the district’s 18- to 21-year-old program as well as Project SEARCH, a school-to-work program that takes place entirely at Mary Lanning Healthcare.

Parental involvement is important in the public schools, just like it is in home school, he said.

“I feel that diversity really gives me a good vantage point of the importance of the involvement of parents,” he said.

Shade said he would love to have the opportunity to represent parents, be a liaison to teachers and boost an already great school system.

“It’s an easy transition, I think, to serve our schools through my experience as a parent and teacher, and to be a representative of looking out for our public schools, which we always need,” he said. “We have a good system already and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Jim Boeve

Jim Boeve has witnessed the importance of education within the Hastings community.

In recent years, Hastings voters have approved a levy override and, during the May 2020 primary election, approved remodeling the district’s Morton building to be used as a central preschool and district office.

“We’ve been very grateful for the support we’ve had from our community,” Boeve said. “With everything that was going on in the world with the last one, that kind of support for our schools was overwhelming. It gives a good sense of the place that school has in the minds of our community and the importance that it has, not only in our school but in all three school systems.

“The voter support and the community support, votes are tangible, they are measurable. The support our school is getting through the pandemic and things like that has also been very evident. The importance people have in our schools and the appreciation they have for our schools and our teachers and our staff has really been something to see, I think, over the years. Maybe it’s magnified with what we’ve been through in the last six or seven months.”

Boeve, 60, of 1514 Arapahoe Ave. is running for a fourth term on the board. He is registrar and an assistant professor of sociology at Hastings College and formerly served as the college’s baseball coach.

Even though the school year is annual and circular, there are always new challenges that keep the job interesting and keeps the board focused, he said.

“When you start running you don’t foresee all of the things that are going to come up,” he said. “Of course, nobody foresaw COVID coming.”

Along with the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic, one of the biggest issues for the district in recent hires was hiring a new superintendent in Jeff Schneider, who is in his second year leading the district.

Boeve and his wife, Traci, have two children, both of whom graduated from Hastings Public Schools.

“I like to say we owe the district a lot more than the district owes us,” he said. “I think that’s what a lot of board members feel — that part of our work is giving back to the district. It’s an anchor in our community in terms of — again you hate to put everything in the frame of reference of the pandemic — but there was a lot of discussion in our community during the pandemic about how this has affected schools and how are the schools going to handle the pandemic? I think very much the schools were a tone setter.”

Boeve has served as board president for the last eight years.

“I hope I’ve done a good enough job where every board member feels like they are a part of it,” he said. “As president you’re not trying to run your own agenda, you’re trying to get maximum participation out of the board.”

He emphasized that each board member is one vote.

“We’re very fortunate in terms of the overall strength of our board in that they have all been active participants in almost everything we do,” he said.

Hastings College pausing in-person lectures, sports this week

With six members of the Hastings College community currently positive for the novel coronavirus disease and another 54 either isolating or in quarantine for reasons related to the virus, the college will pause some in-person instruction and all athletics this week.

The decision, announced Monday in a news release, will keep students on campus but change the way they attend classes for the rest of this week. In addition, all athletic practices and contests are suspended through Saturday.

The suspensions, which took effect at 4 p.m. Monday, currently are set to expire at 9 a.m. Sunday. The situation will be reviewed on Friday, however, so officials can determine if the suspensions need to continue.

According to the news release from the Hastings College Athletic Department, as of Monday the college had a total of 38 individuals isolating — including the six who had tested positive for the viral infection, known as COVID-19, and 32 others who had been tested and were awaiting results. An additional 22 people were in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure.

The increased numbers of isolating and quarantined individuals prompted Monday’s procedural changes. The college has nearly 1,000 students enrolled this fall.

“As we monitor and follow our COVID plan, this increase in potential cases has us moving from orange to pink in our Phase Guideline Matrix,” the college said.

Under the pink designation, classes will be taught remotely, as through online means, and personal contact will be limited. Faculty members will communicate with students as to how laboratory and studio classes will meet — perhaps in small groups.

Campus buildings will remain open for students and employees but will be closed to outside visitors and guests.

Athletic practices, games and weight training all are suspended for the week. This includes Wednesday’s volleyball games at College of St. Mary, Wednesday’s men’s and women’s soccer games at Morningside College, Saturday’s football game at Morningside, Saturday’s home men’s and women’s soccer games versus Briar Cliff University, and Saturday’s home volleyball game versus Kansas Wesleyan University.

Other changes for this week will include reductions in density in the dining hall, with more takeout available. Students are being told to eat alone or with a roommate.

Student workers may be able to work remotely, but Fresh Ideas workers will continue to report for their duties in person.

Any student who chooses to go home while the campus is at the pink level won’t be allowed back until the campus is back to an orange designation.

The college’s COVID-19 Task Force will meet Friday and hopes to announce plans for Sunday and beyond around 3 p.m. that day, the news release said.

Monday’s Hastings College news came on the same day the South Heartland District Health Department announced 40 new lab-confirmed positive cases of the viral infection for the four-county district Friday through Monday.

A total of 54 South Heartland residents were confirmed positive last week (Sept. 20-26), compared to 53 in the previous week. Last week was the seventh straight in which the total number of new confirmed cases increased week over week.

The district’s positivity rate — that is, the total number of new positive cases as a percentage of the total number of test results received — jumped to 14.5% for the week, compared to 10.1% for the week prior.

Positivity rate by county included 14.2% in Adams, 19.4% in Clay, 14.3% in Webster and 11.1% in Nuckolls.

Three South Heartland residents have gone into a hospital for COVID-19 treatment in the past eight days.

“We urge residents to take action now to turn these trends around,” said Michele Bever, health department executive director, in a Monday evening news release. “The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still circulating in our district, and at increasingly higher levels. The simple things we can do to prevent the spread, and to protect each other and our community, are to wear a cloth face covering whenever possible, to keep physically distanced from others, to stay home when we have any symptoms, to avoid crowds, to wash our hands, and to disinfect frequently-touched surfaces.

“We are asking all residents to consider those around them and to take the ‘I’ll protect you, you protect me’ approach to COVID-19 prevention.”

Council approves ballfield dugouts

Three Hastings city baseball fields soon will get dugouts thanks to the city’s half-cent sales tax.

Members of the Hastings City Council voted 8-0 at their regular meeting Monday to approve a contract with Crouch Recreation of Omaha in the amount of $50,930 for the purchase of six ballfield dugouts.

The contract is to purchase six Poligon dugouts to be installed two each at the North Rec Field and South Rec Field west of Hastings High School, and at Carter Park field.

Currently, the fields have just team benches.

“This item was identified in the city parks sales tax committee in doing some ballfield renovations,” Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Hassenstab said, introducing the item. “The city parks crew, if approved, will install these dugouts.”

He said the installation will be completed by March 15, 2021.

These three fields are the most used by city baseball teams.

The dugouts are being purchased using the city’s Sourcewell contract. The project will be paid for with funds generated by the city’s half-cent sales tax that Hastings voters approved in September 2017.

“Another thank you to the community for approving it,” Councilwoman Ginny Skutnik said.

“A great improvement to our parks,” added Council President Paul Hamelink, who was running Monday’s meeting in the absence of Mayor Corey Stutte.

Also during the meeting, council members unanimously approved a contract with Werner Construction Inc. of Hastings in the amount of $244,107.25 for phase 1 of Parkview Cemetery paving. Hassenstab said that was the lowest “and best” of three bids.

That amount was less than the engineer’s estimate of $310,605.

The current cemetery roads are asphalt and will be removed and replaced with concrete. Due to the close proximity of the curb line some trees in the phase I area will have to be removed by cemetery staff. Plans are to replant trees where feasible after the new road is in. The entire resurfacing of Parkview is broken up into six phases.

“It was great, first of all, to see three bids come in. Second, under the engineer’s estimate. This is going to be a great project, I think, and great for our community,” Skutnik said.

Hassenstab said the parks department has $500,000 budgeted this fiscal year for cemetery road replacement, $250,000 of which was carried over for the project from the previous fiscal year.

He is hoping to get phase 2 done this fiscal year as well.

Councilman Scott Snell thanked Hassenstab and everyone else who was involved in the project.

“We’re doing something that’s very benevolent that is worthy of our efforts to honor those that have passed on,” he said. “I’m very grateful for your efforts.”

In other business, the council:

  • Unanimously approved the Class CK liquor license application from RM Retail Services for Midtowne Mart at 1921 W. Second St. and unanimously approved the manager application of Ryan A. Rutt in connection with the liquor license.
  • Unanimously approved Ordinance 4647, rezoning Westbrook 17th Addition from urban single family residential and agricultural districts to urban single family residential district.
  • Unanimously approved the release of easement for Westland Park, LLC at lot 1, Crane Circle Villas Subdivision and lot 2, block 4, Indian Acres second addition.
  • Unanimously approved the interlocal agreement with Juniata and the city of Hastings to extend the street light policies with regard to LED upgrades and needed capital improvements.
  • Unanimously approved a lease with Meyerrs Aerial, LLC for airport property.
  • Unanimously approved awarding a bid to Travelers’ Insurance Company for property, casualty and workers compensation.
  • Unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Adams County for the Hastings Public Library. The agreement calls for the county to pay 15%, based on the library’s previous fiscal year budget.
  • Unanimously approved an ordinance to amend the city code removing camping at Lake Hastings, and other updated park regulation. The council also unanimously approved suspending the second and final reading to pass an ordinance. Council members voted 7-1 to remove a proposed city code change that addressed horses, which were previously prohibited in parks except on the roads, which would be precluded from roadways, both within and outside of parks, in the city.

Council members will address horses during their October work session.