Farmers Show Resilience Amid Covid-19
Agribusiness Illustration Collage

Three cultural systems that motivate farmers and how agribusiness can support

Samantha Scantlebury, Associate Brand Strategy Director

COVID-19 is reshaping the global foodways system, impacting all points of the supply chain. At the start of the chain are farmers and livestock producers who are being uniquely challenged by the disease and the economic fallout it has incurred. The Ag Economy Barometer, a monthly assessment of farmer and producer confidence conducted by Purdue University & CME Group, plummeted in March and April with two-thirds of farmers stating that they are fairly or very worried about the impact of the virus on their farm’s profitability this year. And this concern is certainly founded:

  • With little foodservice activity and schools out of session, dairy farmers are being forced to dump milk, as up to 10% of the nation’s milk supply is without a home.
  • Several major meat packing plants have been closed this past month due to COVID-19 cases among employees, leaving animals with no place to go for processing and driving down the price livestock producers receive.
  • Multiple ethanol plants have gone offline, giving one less avenue for corn growers to market their grain.
  • Some growers are being forced to plow under their potato, onion and produce fields as fruit and vegetable demand from foodservice has disappeared.
  • Across the board, commodity prices are slumping alongside the declining global economy.

Overall, COVID-19 has created a visible strain on the food supply chain. To avoid food getting stuck on the farm and being wasted, farmers are in a challenging position as they look for any avenue to market their crop or livestock.

How is COVID-19 affecting health and safety on the farm? Finding skilled labor was already a challenge for farmers, and now, there is a greater risk of labor shortage. With an average age of 60, farmers are within the higher-risk group for contracting the disease. And 84% of farmers had at least some concern that the virus would affect the health of family or friends, which has significant implications for the industry when you consider the prevalence of family-operated farms, according to a DTN and Farm Market ID study. But when asked what would happen should members of their team become ill with the virus, one responded, “We’ll do what we’ve always done. Pull an extra shift.”

It’s quotes like this that reveal the admirable qualities of farmers – their grit, their sense of purpose and their responsibility. With these qualities, it’s no wonder that more than 60% of consumers trust farmers and ranchers to do the right thing in producing food. And it’s these qualities that make them better prepared to deal with the rapid amount of change and volatility brought on by this virus. Thus, it’s not surprising to see that despite economic challenges and a looming invisible enemy, cattlemen are helping bring new calves into the world. On the row crop side, #plant2020 is heavily underway in most parts of the country.

This distinct farmer mindset is shaped by cultural systems. They are the cultural groupings that make up who we are – they shape our values, the relationships we have, the way we see ourselves and the way we want others to see us. Everyone embodies a unique set of cultural systems. Through understanding someone’s cultural systems, we can better empathize and form trusting relationships. And trust is the foundation for success. What cultural systems shape farmers’ identities and motivate them to feed the world in the hardest of times? And how can agribusinesses successfully tap into these cultural systems to show support and forge trusted connections?

Three Cultural Systems Driving Farmers and How Agribusiness Can Support

Community Collage Illustration

Members of rural communities.

  • In talking with farmers, one thing we’ve learned is that they love and appreciate the rural communities of which they are a part. They enjoy knowing their neighbor and keeping up with how the other is raising their livestock or growing their crop. They see each other in town, they go to church together and they often celebrate life events with one another. As such, there is a desire to be a good member of the community, which means looking out for one another and supporting one another, economically and emotionally. This dedication to providing for their community drives farmers, and they expect that their partners will also prioritize local and rural communities.
  • Agribusinesses are stepping up during this difficult time to support the needs of rural communities and are tapping into the strong emotional thread of community spirit. Cavender’s is raising money for Texas FFA members whose annual competitions are being cut short due to the disease. This youth organization plays a major role in the lives of rural kids and teens as they develop leadership and agriculture skills, and shapes them into future community leaders. John Deere is showing community support through producing face shields at some of their Iowa and Illinois plants. The shields are being donated to medical personnel in surrounding areas. John Deere is supporting local communities by using the company’s core competencies and resources. Understanding the importance of broadband Internet in times like this and beyond, Land O’ Lakes cooperative is building a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots to help rural communities stay connected and supported.

Family Collage Illustration

Family business.

  • While most people are shaped by their family relationships, the role of family in agriculture is often uniquely intertwined with business. Family-owned operations are the lifeblood of agriculture, and many are legacy businesses that have been handed down for generations. As a result, farmers experience an even greater sense of responsibility for what they achieve financially, as well as for the safety and well-being of their partners and team members. A culture of care and communication is key to success in these family-run operations, and producers are relying on those tenets to navigate the new normal due to COVID-19.
  • Agribusinesses have a responsibility to demonstrate this level of care for their family of employees and customers. Examples of agribusiness’ care abound – many livestock operations have taken great measures to ensure distancing and sanitation for employee safety. Some are taking employee temperatures before they enter work. Crop input companies continue to deliver supplies to their grower customers who are entering the fields and are taking extra precautions to ensure their drivers and customers stay safe when they interact. Agribusinesses are taking extra time and effort to connect with their customers to reassure product supply and offer support.

Rural Country Collage Illustration


  • Part of being an American is a sense of duty for our country. We witness it with our servicemen and servicewomen who protect us, as well as the healthcare workers on the front lines fighting COVID-19. As Americans today, the majority of us have been called on by our leadership to stay in our homes and help “flatten the curve.” Farmers understand their duty is to provide food for our nation and world in this challenging time.
  • Agribusiness organizations need to recognize and appreciate this sense of duty and do what they can – including making adjustments – to best serve farmers. In fact, it’s their duty to do so. The DTN and Farm Market iD study probed some ways agribusiness vendors and partners can help farmers’ businesses during these uncertain times. Clear, open communication topped the list and shortly after were price reductions and flexible payment terms. Many agribusinesses are stepping up to provide the desired flexibility. Startup AgriSync is offering a discount program on its services for the next several months. AgriSync is a communications platform between farmers and advisors; its technology enables effective troubleshooting while maintaining social distantancing. Similarly, we’ve seen examples of companies with field-monitoring technologies offering temporary free access to monitoring tools, reducing costs to farmers and enabling farmers to stay at home while monitoring their fields.

Together, Farm and Agribusiness Can Supply Food for a Changing World

At the end of the day, people will continue to eat. Farmers are, and will always be, essential. These cultural systems will continue to guide and shape the decisions farmers make to #FarmOn and produce food for the nation and the world. But we need to bear in mind the clear signals that the food system will be changed in some ways long-term. Sanitation is growing in importance, and clear communications to employees and customers are becoming even more vital. Farmers may find themselves needing to diversify what they produce/raise and where they sell it in order to avoid the bottlenecks and closed markets that are diminishing their options and causing crops and livestock to become “stuck” on their farm. They may be more critical of big capital investments for some time as they work to build back liquidity, and they will continue to appreciate flexibility in doing business. As farmers continue to adapt to change, drawing upon the foundations of their cultural systems to effectively do so, agribusinesses must continue to show farmers that they too are guided by the same values and can adapt with them. Together, farmers and their agribusiness partners can supply food for both a growing – and changing – world.

Want to learn more? American consumers consider farmers and ranchers to be among the most trustworthy sources of food production information, second only behind friends and family. According to FoodThink research, 64% trust farmers and ranchers to do the right thing. Download our ”Trust in Food: Creating Trust in an Era of Skepticism” whitepaper. Want to talk food or food production? Contact Signal Theory anytime. We look forward to the conversation.

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