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Published in Food/Agribusiness

Ag sector ‘more or less’ back to normal, although labor challenges persist

BY Sunday, December 20, 2020 04:00pm

In addition to farming his own 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Ionia County, Jeff Sandborn is also active in both the Michigan and National Corn Growers associations. In fact, he has represented Michigan on the NCGA board and was a chairman on the NCGA Ethanol Committee. Sandborn shared insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic, new administration and other issues are poised to affect the agriculture industry in 2021.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic disrupt operations for crop growers? Farmers really had no choice but to go out to the fields like they do every year.

For agriculture, we almost automatically social distance just because of what we do. For me, I had a positive COVID test on Nov. 13. I had field work to do so I just stayed in the tractor cab and we were spreading fertilizer and the guy loading me stayed in his cab and we were good. We have the ability to social distance out in the countryside probably way more than people do in densely populated areas.

Jeff Sandborn of Sandborn Farms COURTESY PHOTO

Are farms out of the woods in terms of the pandemic?

Initially, I think when the first threat of it hit this spring, it kind of threw a wrench in things, just parts deliveries and things like that. Mostly, I could get everything I needed. You just need to have a little forethought and get things done. Really, now we’re back to normal more or less. Crop prices have trended up this summer and late fall. Yields are across the board across Michigan depending on how Mother Nature treated you in the spring and summer.

Food processors have been hit really hard by the pandemic. Does that pose challenges for operations like yours?

For me, a lot of my corn goes to the local ethanol plant here in Woodbury. Because driving dropped off severely, they couldn’t make ethanol. Once the tanks get full, you can’t really keep making it, otherwise you dump it. … But I think we’re slowly getting back to normal. I know the ethanol plants locally have switched over to making people-grade, or whatever you want to call it, to use for hand sanitizer. They didn’t use their normal capacity, but it got them through to help get back to what they do.

Workforce shortages in the agriculture sector seem to be ever-present and a major problem during the pandemic. What are you seeing? 

For me, with crops, it’s more about the machinery and getting people to run the machinery and covering acreage. My wife and her dad have a beef farm, so trying to get people to help with that (can be tough). … When the economy was really booming pre-pandemic, not many people worked at that more labor-intensive type of work. It was hard. We had a lot of immigrants that came to do that work and that became harder … with the pandemic and some of the trade issues. A constant problem with any type of processing in agriculture is getting a stable, reliable workforce to do that work.

Speaking of machinery, precision agriculture seems to be constantly evolving as farmers continue to implement forms of automation. Do you see that continuing to transform the industry?

As robotics become more the norm, I think that will fill in some of the labor issues. After the manufacturing downturn, there were a lot of robotics companies that kind of retooled their stuff and got it into different sectors.

On the heels of President-elect Joe Biden announcing Tom Vilsack as his nominee as U.S. Agriculture Secretary, how does a transition in administrations affect the industry?

Just politics in general, when you transition administrations, there is always that concern with what’s different. Typically what happens — and I’m generalizing here — is the concern is always on regulation. Where is the balance point moving forward when it comes to regulation? 

There are a lot of people that are very well-intentioned that are in D.C. or on the coast that have a perception of agriculture that isn’t reality. There are things that they think make sense that really don’t. It goes back to a quote that I think (President Dwight) Eisenhower said that it’s easy to farm when you’re sitting at a desk with a pencil. It’s totally different when you get out in the field. 

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