Forty years ago there was a farm crisis. Twenty years ago was 9/11. In the past year a pandemic hit the country and the world. Through it all, agriculture has survived and changed.
“As I think about it, 9/11 proved that the resiliency of America is that we feed ourselves,” says John Whitaker, the head of Conservation Districts of Iowa and a former state legislator and former head of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Iowa.
On 9/11 Whitaker was a farmer and president of the Iowa Farmers Union. And he was in Washington, D.C., for a Farmers Union fly-in when the planes hit the towers.
While that day was difficult and horrifying, Whitaker says 9/11 and other major disasters and challenges in United States history continue to show over and over that “food security is national security” and that “America recovers because America doesn’t starve.”
The present COVID-19 pandemic and the 9/11 tragedy of 20 years ago are clearly different, but they have some similarities, according to Iowa State University economist Chad Hart.
In both cases there has been turmoil and after-effects. The immediate concern after 9/11 was about more terrorist attacks, but that meant the recovery was fairly swift.
The present pandemic unfolded more slowly but has lasted for a long time and the return to normalcy is going to take longer.
Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill says there have been and will be some very specific changes in agriculture due to the challenges of 9/11 and COVID-19.
After 9/11, Hill says, there were concerns about violence in the Middle East and the United States’ dependence on Middle Eastern oil. That helped fuel the growth of the domestic ethanol industry in the United States.
“I think it was a major pivot point for support of home-grown fuels,” he says.
In part because of that effort, the United States eventually went from an energy importer to an energy exporter.
“Biofuels took a giant leap,” Hill says.
It’s too early to know yet what the effect of the current pandemic will be on agriculture, but Hill says one definite possibility is that it will make the effort to provide high-speed broadband to rural areas more important. With so many people suddenly working from home, the push for rural broadband could be energized.
Both 9/11 and the current pandemic are tragedies that have led to loss of life, Hill and Whitaker say, but agriculture has proven resilient. The only question is what changes are in store.