Colleen Kottke
 
| Wisconsin State Farmer

After enduring low prices and market uncertainty in 2019, farmers were ready to turn the page and start anew in 2020. After all, milk prices were on the rebound and both farmers and ag industry analysts were optimistic.

Discouraged by an endless parade of headlines that told of farm bankruptcies, trade wars, farmer suicides, flooded farm fields—everyone was ready for a little good news.

As word of a novel virus spreading across Asia and then into Europe began flooding the 24-hour  news cycle, most of us really had no inkling of how the illness would affect us here in the US.

In a short time the presence of the coronavirus was confirmed on our shores. Within weeks it was clear that we were in the midst of a pandemic. Schools, conferences, restaurants, food service, sporting events and other activities were canceled one after the other. The sales of milk and dairy products was seriously impacted, particularly cheese and butter.

State governments imposed stay at home orders. While retail sales of those products increased, sales to the food service industry spiraled downward, hitting the supply chain like a truck. With no market for products, many processors asked farmers to cut back on production or dump their milk.

Add to this a contentious presidential election and 2020 became a year many people were eager to put behind them. Here are the news stories that shaped the local, state and national landscape in the agricultural industry in 2020.

January

Ag expert says 2020 will provide reprieve for farmers. The upward movement of milk prices at the end of 2019 provided dairy farmers a much needed reprieve from the long weary journey they’ve endured over the past five years in which they saw milk prices drop to a low of $13.40/cwt. 

Borden announced that it is filing for bankruptcy protection, the second major US dairy to do so in as many months. The 163-year-old company cites falling milk consumption along with the raising price of milk for adding to the company’s debt load.

In an effort to add add accountability and transparency to reform the USDA’s checkoff programs Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, introduces the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act on Jan. 9. 

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a new North American trade agreement that rewrites the rules of trade with Canada and Mexico and gives President Donald Trump a major policy win.

Gov. Tony Evers released an $8.5M plan to help preserve the dairyland as its farmers confront the loss of generations’ worth of work, or worse — their lives. 

DOJ launches probe in possible Dean Foods, DFA sale

Coronavirus infects markets. A deadly coronavirus continues to spread in China, with a death toll of 25 people and over 800 infected. Chinese officials are trying to contain the disease and have locked down transportation to and from five major cities, freezing tens of millions of people in place.

Court strikes down small refinery exemptions that were improperly issued by EPA.

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FEBRUARY

Wisconsin GOP tries to speed a bill through the Legislature in the final days of the session that would transfer the power to regulate factory farm siting and expansion from state officials to a new board controlled by agricultural groups. 

Dairy farmers say Joaquin Phoenix is the one who is out of touch after the actor’s rant against the dairy industry at the Academy Awards.

Former U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is $150,000 richer after claiming a lottery prize playing Powerball.

Wisconsin dairy farmers and other producers are feeling the impact of trade uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese co-owner Michael Moran is accused of stealing $21,000 from 83 farmers.

MARCH

Wisconsin conservatives slam Green New Deal supported by Sanders, saying the sweeping progressive program to confront global warming and social issues would cost a typical Wisconsin family more than $40,000 per year and would cripple agriculture.

USDA’s recently released spring crop insurance prices for corn and soybeans were among the lowest in the last 10 years. 

Coronavirus fears cancel Wausau’s ginseng fest

Interest rates collapsed this week as markets continued to absorb the impact of the spread of COVID-19 as the U.S. Federal Reserve announced an emergency 0.5% rate cut in an attempt to get ahead of economic slowdowns caused by the virus.

Market anxiety spilled into beef and pork prices this week, sending futures contracts sharply lower.

Virus spread prompts cancellation of Wisconsin Public Service Farm Show

COVID-19 will delay ag export surges promised in trade deal

The impact of the coronavirus on the Chinese economy has made it harder to kick-start phase one purchases of the newly signed trade deal.

Farmers receive letter from Foremost Farms asking them to voluntarily cut milk production due to coronavirus situation.

Ethanol industry hit hard with historic low prices with analysts expecting about a 20 – 25% drop in consumption in the near term.

APRIL

President Trump signs CARES Act into law, following unanimous passage by both the U.S House and Senate. The CARES Act authorizes up to $2.2 trillion in aid and financial assistance do deal with the health and economic impacts from the COVID-19 virus pandemic 

DFA is winning bidder of lion’s share of Dean Foods assets for $433 million.

Farm Technology Days hires new general manager Arnie Jennerman to succeed current show manager Matt Glewen.

Chris Elbe, owner of Golden E Dairy of West Bend says DFA asks them to dump milk from their 2,400 cow herd due to pandemic impact on milk market.

Farmers advised they are eligible to apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program

Pandemic pain felt by entire ag industry with dairies dumping milk, produce farmers leaving leaving produce to rot in fields and ethanol plants sit idling.

Due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, 2020 Wisconsin FFA State Convention is postponed. A virtual event will be held instead.

Organizers announce Farm Technology Days is postponed to 2021. This year’s show host, Huntsinger Farms agrees to host the show in 2021 in Eau Claire..

USDA will spend up to $15.5 billion in the initial phase of its plan to bolster the nation’s food supply against the effects of the coronavirus pandemic including direct payments to farmers and ranchers, along with other support measures.

Large meat plants close due to a number of workers sickened by virus, raising fears of shortages.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and Wisconsin DATCP contact retailers in Wisconsin lift limits on dairy product purchases.

Wisconsin farm bankruptcies rising rapidly as coronavirus weighs heavily on agriculture.

State meat markets see explosive growth as shortage fears rise causing consumers to flock to local butcher shops to stock up on meat.

With many Wisconsin residents forced to stay home, businesses are reporting increased interest in home vegetable gardening as the new coronavirus pandemic continues. 

Just 14 days after enrollment opened for the Paycheck Protection Program, the $349 billion appropriated for the program was depleted, however, the impact on ag was minimal. 

Numerous beef, chicken, and pork processing plants have closed or reduced capacity amidst the COVID-19 outbreak as employees have fallen ill. Closures may reduce processing by as much as 25%, which is creating a meat shortage and backlog of slaughter.

JBS meat processing plant in Green Bay linked to 147 cases among workers.

USDA announces $19 billion CFAP plan to help farmers, consumers and maintain the food supply chain.

MAY

President Donald Trump exercises executive action to order meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over growing coronavirus cases and the impact on the nation’s food supply.

Wisconsin Dairy Recovery program underway with 2,480 gallons of milk delivered to Hunger Task Force and local food pantries.

Gov. Tony Evers is considering funneling millions of dollars to struggling farmers using federal funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

Hundreds of thousands of healthy pigs euthanized as meatpacking backlog hits farms

Wisconsin AG Josh Kaul withdraws opinion on former AG Brad Schimel on high capacity well permitting, giving DNR power to place conditions on applications.

Missouri to seek death penalty for farmer accused in murdering Wisconsin cattle dealers Nicholas and Justin Diemel of Shawano County.

Foremost Farms USA today announces plans to shutter its manufacturing facility in Chilton this summer. 

Evers announces $50M in relief for farmers via the Wisconsin Farm Support Program providing direct payments.

Despite pandemic, farmers looking at an ideal planting season

Dean Foods fails to make Federal Order Payment to at least four Federal Milk Marketing Orders for April 2020 milk production.

JUNE

Four senior executives at two major chicken producers have been charged in an ongoing investigation in the price fixing of broiler chickens.

Randy Romanski is officially appointed as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

Farm families, livestock exhibitors saddened by Wisconsin State Fair cancellation. The last time the fair was shelved was in 1945 due to WWII.

Meatpacking plants that had to briefly close due to coronavirus outbreaks have been back up and running for weeks, but production backlogs are forcing farmers to euthanize thousands of hogs that can’t be processed, drawing complaints from animal welfare advocates.

Controversial herbicide dicamba no longer legal, federal court rules. Growers allowed to use existing stocks of dicamba through July 31.

Organizers of the Warrens Cranberry Festival and World Dairy Expo announce cancellations.

Julia Nunes selected to take over as the 73rd Alice in Dairyland.

JULY

Negative PPDs offset milk price rally thanks to a modification to the milk pricing rules of the 2018 farm bill.

A newly introduced bipartisan bill the RAMP-UP Act will provide grants to existing meat processors to become federally inspected, helping to provide new outlets for meat and ease the backlog of livestock due to the disruption of the food chain.

Wisconsin State Fair allows citizens to purchase fair food favorites via a food drive-thru.

Wisconsin Jr Holstein members Mason Jauquet, Colton Brandel and Jacob Harbaugh honored at national level as finalists for the 2020 National Distinguished Junior Members.

Wisconsin AG Josh Kaul among 20 state AGs suing over new Trump water rule, alleging that new federal rules undermine their ability to protect rivers, lakes and streams within their borders.

Wisconsin residents report receiving unsolicited packages of seeds in the mail that appear to be sent from China. Ag officials in 30 states warned public not to plant seeds.

The union representing workers at chicken processing plants in six states sued the USDA, saying its policy of allowing companies to slaughter birds more quickly endangers workers and makes it more difficult to protect against spread of the coronavirus.

AUGUST

Exports of grains to China broke records as corn prices explode as the country uses up its stockpile to feed hungry poultry and hogs. 

Crops continue to flourish under good growing conditions in Wisconsin.

Dairy farms receive the most money from the WI Farm Support Program, which disbursed $41.6 million in payments of $3,500 to farmers across the state as economic stimulus.

Farmers across a wide swath of Iowa are dealing with the aftermath of a rare wind storm that turned what was looking like a record corn crop into deep losses for many. 

First US virus cases in mink found at two Utah farms.

The towns of Peck, Polar and Wolf River in Langlade County came under fire for ordinances that charge farmers using heavy hauling equipment to haul manure on town roads. Three organizations – Venture Dairy Cooperative, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce – wrote open letters to the towns asking them to rescind the ordinances.

SEPTEMBER

Marking a key milestone in the merger of two Wisconsin-based cooperatives, Countryside members have voted “Yes” to confirm the merger between Landmark Services Cooperative and Countryside Cooperative. 

OCTOBER

Polk Co. backs down on CAFO moratorium after receiving a letter from Venture Dairy Cooperative, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce warning county officials they could be committing a felony if they moved forward with regulating the large farm operations.

With new direct payments available to farmers in response to COVID-19, Wisconsin agriculture economists project more than 40 percent of net farm income will come from federal government payments in 2020.

Thousands of minks dead in COVID-19 Utah farm outbreak, forcing 9 sites in three counties to quarantine.

Home bakers in Wisconsin continue to face legal battles with Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in right to sell flour, baked goods.

USDA reports that Iowa farmers lost 850,000 acres of crops after the devastating August derecho.

After a 24-year partnership Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative was notified by the Maple Leaf Cheesemakers Inc. that they would no longer make cheese at the Monroe plant, leaving 25 farms in search of a home for their milk.

DFA ordered to divest itself of former Dean Foods plant in DePere, which will continue to operate under the Dean Foods banner and keep jobs in Wisconsin.

EPA announces it will approve new five-year registrations for two dicamba products and extending the registration of an additional dicamba product.

Candie Lehto of Oconto Falls FFA Alumni Chapter tapped for National FFA Alumni Award.

After more than 40 years spent on the endangered species list, the gray wolf has been removed after successful recovery efforts, the US Department of the Interior announced. 

Two Wisconsin mink farms in Taylor County are under quarantine after animals in the facilities tested positive for ARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. Between the two farms, more than 5,400 mink have died.

Local authorities in western Japan began culling around 330,000 chickens after an outbreak of a highly pathogenic avian flu was confirmed at a chicken farm for the first time in nearly three years in the country.

China and 14 other countries agreed to set up the world’s largest trading bloc, encompassing nearly a third of all economic activity, in a deal many in Asia are hoping will help hasten a recovery from the shocks of the pandemic. The US is not among those participating.

NOVEMBER

A new public opinion poll show the majority of U.S. adults have a positive view of farmers’ sustainability practices along with an hearty show of trust, says the AFBF.

Tyson Foods has fired seven managers at an Iowa pork plant after investigating allegations they bet on how many workers there would get sick from the coronavirus.

John and Melissa Eron of Portage County have received the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes farmers across the state for their efforts to maintain sustainable farming practices.

As harvest comes to an end in Wisconsin, growers are expected to see record corn yields this year. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service forecast an average of 184 bushels of corn per acre. That’s six bushels, or about 3 percent, higher than the previous record set in 2016 and almost 11 percent higher than what farmers saw last year.

DECEMBER

President-elect Joe Biden picks former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reprise that role in his administration.

Meat industry groups urge governors across the U.S. to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination for the men and women who work in the meat and poultry industry, following healthcare workers and those residing in long-term care facilities.

Wisconsin food processing plants have been linked to more COVID-19 cases than had been previously disclosed, including four deaths associated with a Green Bay facility, according to government data.

Kevin Krentz was elected president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Rural Mutual Insurance Company.

Cattle groups expressed their disappointment following the USDA’s issuance of a final rule implementing the Packers and Stockyards Act’s prohibition against meatpacker buying conduct, saying it constitutes an undue and unreasonable preferences or advantages.

Maple Leaf Cooperative, once of the state’s oldest cheese plants has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in an effort to save the business by restructuring its debts and buying time in order to find a new cheesemaking partner.

The Dairy Business Association, Nature Conservancy, Clean Wisconsin and Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association have announced a new partnership to ensure water quality and farm viability through sustainability practices. 

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is challenging measures adopted by the Canadian government that violate the US-Mexico-Canada agreement, which officially came into enforcement in July this year. Lighthizer claims that dairy tariff-rate quotas allocated by Canada are harming American farmers’ ability to properly market their products to Canada.

A Delaware court has ordered former Waukesha dairy Golden Guernsey Dairy to pay its former employees $1.1 million in back wages after failing to provide notice to employees that it was closing and filing for bankruptcy. The former dairy processing, bottling and distribution facility employed over 100 people in Waukesha until Jan. 5, 2013, when the company shut its doors without notifying the state or its employee..

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