Farm groups and agribusiness associations have a unique opportunity over the next month to help ensure our food and agriculture supply chain is strong enough to meet future challenges. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA/AMS) issued a request for comments on “Supply Chains for the Production of Agricultural Commodities” to inform a report required by an Executive Order signed by President Biden shortly after taking office. On Monday, May 17, AMS extended the deadline for comments until June 21, giving those of us in agriculture the time we need to submit thorough and thoughtful feedback to USDA. Let’s not waste the opportunity for evaluation; to hit the reset button and seek meaningful improvements.

We offer this view from our shared and tremendously difficult experiences of the past 14 months.  Agriculture has been on the frontlines as the COVID-19 pandemic strained the supply chain to a near breaking point. Thanks in large part to the hard work and sacrifice of millions of essential food and agriculture workers—from farmers and ranchers in the field to grocery store employees—American consumers had continued access to safe, affordable and nutritious foods.

At the same time, the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in specific sectors of agriculture and pointed to potential weaknesses in any future crisis. Meat and poultry production has been the most obvious example. However, had COVID-19 been more transmissible or more deadly, or had government agencies and officials made slightly different decisions on the severity of lockdowns, international travel and trade, or definitions of essential businesses, it is possible that the supply chain would not have held together.

Adding to the urgency of USDA’s report is the number of possible threats beyond a pandemic that the food and agriculture supply chain could face. Indeed, we have seen two examples just since the start of 2021, with the weather-induced collapse of the electric grid in Texas this past winter and a cyberattack that shut down a major pipeline in the Southeast in just the past few weeks. With the active ingredients used in 67 % of herbicides, 43 % of insecticides, and 20 % of fungicides coming from just one country, China, a disaster that disrupts the supply chain in the U.S. does not even need to happen here.

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) last year embarked on a project to assist its members as they assess how their businesses and their farmer-owners handled the COIVD-19 crisis and how their co-ops can better prepare for any future crisis. NCFC partnered with Aimpoint Research, a global business intelligence firm with a focus on food and agriculture, to conduct an After-Action Review (AAR) looking back on the pandemic response and a Resiliency Planning Exercise to look at strengthening supply chain operations moving forward. The results of the AAR/Resiliency Planning project, along with other work that NCFC has done with Aimpoint to focus on the future of the food and agriculture sector, will inform our comments to USDA. In addition, many NCFC member co-ops are providing the association with comments on USDA’s request, which will also be incorporated. 

The Agricultural Retailers Association knew the COVID-19 pandemic would mean disruptions in the supply chain for its members and is now getting a chance to see just how important being deemed essential was in curtailing negative impacts. The potential for disruptions occurred as farmers entered the spring season, the busiest time of year for farmers and the agricultural retailers who supply and support them. 

Continuous flows of seed, fertilizers, crop protection and custom application services are most important in the spring and even missing one or two days in tight windows for planting, fertilizing, or applying crop protection could have meant significant negative impacts on fresh food and row crop production as well as farm income. 

Designating agricultural retailers as essential and exempt from any temporary closures of retail businesses was imperative to the flexibility of the agricultural supply chain. In hindsight, we now see just how critical this was to the 2020 planting season and every other aspect in which American farmers drive the world food supply. We applaud USDA for trying to find remaining inefficiencies and supply chain disruptions to avoid them in the future.

One theme we have both seen repeated in our own experiences was the lack of coordination among federal, state, and local agencies and the private sector. This led to confusion, inefficiencies, and far greater health risks and consequences than were likely necessary. Such coordination problems existed in our own private supply chains, but we are just one link in the supply chain. It is imperative that the ag community engage with USDA on this important issue, providing perspectives, feedback and recommendations for improvement.

We believe USDA especially must hear from groups representing the most important link in the supply chain—the farmers, ranchers and growers themselves. Producer organizations bring a unique perspective to the table and can ensure that USDA’s final report provides both producers and agribusiness with the tools needed to be resilient in any future crisis.

Our two organizations are taking this opportunity seriously in hopes that it might facilitate improved coordination during a national emergency. Collectively, we cannot afford not to.

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Chuck Conner is president & CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and Daren Coppock is president & CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association.