Cautious optimism: farmers evaluate new year ahead

Published: Jan. 1, 2021 at 9:17 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Amid the highs and lows of a tumultuous year, U.S. farmers are expected to end 2020 with the best net income in seven years, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture income forecast. However, what is projected does not necessarily mean there is cash to spare.

Janesville farmer Doug Rebout said those in the agriculture industry know every year shakes out differently.

“What people have learned to deal with this year because of the pandemic – that’s kind of been our life all along,” Rebout said.

However, he said the ripple effect of COVID-19 is especially apparent on his crop.

“Less people were driving, so the ethanol went way down, so ethanol plants had to shut down. That really affected the corn market because the demand wasn’t there,” he said.

Through a year marked by low prices and fluctuating demand, the USDA is forecasting farmers to end 2020 with higher profits than last year, thanks to the government paying nearly 40 percent of their income. The report details farmers are expected to receive $46.5 billion in federal aid.

Rebout said any government subsidy is just a band aid.

“It’s something to make sure that we are able to keep going, that we are able to pay those bills and keep farming,” Rebout said.

For many in the agriculture industry, money from the government just helps them break even. Janesville dairy farmer and part owner of Barlass Jerseys, Brian Barlass, said the help is substantial, but not a money maker.

“We would have been far better off, or further ahead if milk prices had stayed stable,” Barlass said.

Barlass said friends and neighbors were told to cut production and dump milk early on in the pandemic.

“Our cheese plant asked us to cut production by five percent, that was only for about a month. So, we were fortunate in that regard,” Barlass said.

While there is optimism about what is ahead, there is still no crystal ball for farmers.

“2021 is kind of a guessing game. I think it is going to be a little bit of a roller coaster again, probably not as severe as 2020 was, but we gotta plan for ups and downs and be ready to change plans,” Barlass said.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, there is $13 billion in support for agriculture included in the latest COVID-19 relief package. However, Rebout said it is too early to say just how the money will shake out for them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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