From trade wars to floods and droughts, 2019 has not been easy for many farmers. Here are some of the biggest agriculture stories of the year:
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The 2018 government shutdown bled into the first 25 days of 2019, affecting all sorts of agricultural programs at the USDA. The agency halted examining new grants and loans and delayed its crop reports. The FDA stopped most domestic food inspections during the shutdown. The government reopened after 35 days—the longest shutdown in American history. Let’s just say it was an interesting start to the year.
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The weather became that much more erratic in many parts of the country this year. In March, floods devastated the Midwest, damaging farmland, destroying grain and killing livestock. This fall, farmers in parts of the southeast were praying for rain, as they experienced an extreme “flash drought.” This meant that states from Virginia through to northern Florida endured temperatures between nine and 12 degrees above normal, reaching record highs.
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Fires in the Amazon
More than 87,000 fires burned in the Amazon this summer, blackening the skies in Brazilian cities. This was the highest number of fires that ripped through the jungle known as the “Earth’s lungs” since 2010. Most of the fires were intentionally set to clear trees for agriculture. There’s some evidence that shows locals felt emboldened to set more illegal fires this year without fear of penalty because of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s pledge to roll back environmental regulations to develop more of the Amazon.
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President Donald Trump’s trade wars really took off in 2019. After Trump slapped 25-percent tariffs on a number of Chinese goods in 2018, China responded with its own tariffs on a number of American products, including soybeans and pork. In August, the Chinese stopped buying American agricultural products entirely. There has been a thaw since, as China started buying American soybeans again in September and both sides agreed to delay additional tariffs on some agricultural products. And in November, the Chinese government lifted its years-long ban on American poultry products, facing pressure from its own domestic meat prices due to an outbreak of African swine flu.
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Census, Bailouts and Bankruptcies
The agriculture census, which comes out every five years, showed that the total number of farms was down 3.2 percent from the last census, as was the total amount of farmland. The census also showed that the average size of farmland increased, meaning the smaller number of farms that survived are larger. Farmer income also saw its largest drop in three years in the first quarter of 2019.
To help farmers through the hard times of the trade war, the Trump administration announced a $16-billion aid package for farmers in May. But analyses have shown that subsidies doled out to farmers have disproportionately helped wealthy farmers.
And despite the bailouts, farm bankruptcies were way up in 2019. For the year leading up to September, farmers were filing for bankruptcies at a rate 24 percent higher than the year before. America’s largest dairy producer, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy in November. Ever low milk prices have also forced many dairy farmers out of business this year.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2019. We learned that honeybees “surf” to get out of water, and that sweet potatoes alert their buddies to pest attacks. We’ll call it a wash.