Taking a Punch

Published online: Jun 11, 2020 Feature Luther Markwart, Executive Vice President, ASGA
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This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Sugar Producer.

The global pandemic has turned the world upside-down. Over the last four months, this lethal threat has harmed families and the economy alike. Our nation and the world were not prepared, and world leaders, governors and mayors have learned through experience. Collaboration and competition have occurred simultaneously over scarce goods to varying results. Stories highlighting unprecedented problems around essentials such as medical supplies, healthcare and food are troubling. The poor, elderly and those with underlying health issues are ripe targets for this silent assassin. How do we navigate these challenges? How do we maintain and recover as individuals, as businesses, and as a nation? How do we repair an interconnected world?

Until there is a vaccine (likely at least 12 months away), we will live, work and play differently—we may not shake hands for a year. From the beginning, top medical research minds have been collaborating 24/7 to find a vaccine. We have incredible technology, but testing vaccines takes time. Vaccines must be safe and effective. In the meantime, we cannot overwhelm our healthcare system.

The U.S. economy is enormous and federal spending, while important, cannot solve all problems. Federal spending has been higher than most people have seen in their lifetime. In the first four rounds of coronavirus spending, we saw $2.7 trillion in aid. As perspective, in 2019, total federal spending was $4.5 trillion. We could see the federal government double its spending in 2020. Federal debt at the end of February was $23.3 trillion. All of this has major ramifications in the years ahead with respect to debt, deficits and the government’s ability to respond to future crises.

Agriculture is critically important for the nation, and our collective voice is being heard loud and clear. There has been a significant infusion of funds, and more will be needed. We are getting regular updates on farm credit, supply chain problems, transportation, labor, retail and foodservice. Prior to the pandemic, half of the food consumed in the U.S. was from restaurants, institutions and takeout. That demand has virtually evaporated and pivoted to grocery stores. Some restaurants are continuing to purchase bulk products, breaking them down into consumer size packaging to sell directly to consumers. Everyone must be creative to survive, and you are seeing it crop up everywhere. Remember the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Is there any good news? Yes. Sugar—perhaps a lone bright spot in agriculture. We have received our disaster funds, the market remains balanced and strong, the Mexican suspension agreements have been renewed for another five years, and, for the most part, we have had a good spring. Market needs are being met and consumers can breathe easy that the shelves will have sugar.

We need a great year in our business. We need to do everything we can to get as much sugar in the bins as we can in 2020. Much of that success is in your hands. Your farm, your cooperative, your customers and your nation need you to succeed. Just as the doctors and nurses get applause as heroes in the streets of New York City, you deserve equal praise for putting food on our tables. It often takes a crisis to create awareness and appreciation for what you do. The nation salutes you.

On a final note, it is an election year. Campaigning, conventions and voting will have challenges that have been unseen heretofore. How we rise to the challenge will be a new chapter in our democracy. We are America, and we will find a way to get it done. Stay strong, stay healthy and complete the mission of feeding the nation and the world.