As this issue goes to press, our world has been dealing with the COVID-19 health crisis for nearly 4½ months. In June, Irrigation Today reached out to professionals in various sectors of our industry to find out how the pandemic has affected their company. Here is what they had to say.
The health and safety of our employees continues to be our number one priority. From the beginning, we put enhanced safety measures in place across our global footprint to protect our workforce, customers, suppliers and communities. All Valmont products and solutions are considered essential, because they support critical infrastructure sectors as defined by the Department of Homeland Security and similar global government agencies. As a result, the vast majority of our manufacturing facilities have continued to fully operate during the pandemic.
Certainly, the challenges related to the downstream impact of food supply disruptions have affected our customers. Commodity price declines, cash flow challenges related to canceled contracts and labor availability related to closed borders are the main implications. Our dealer network is facing similar challenges to managing their own businesses within each market, mitigating risks as best they can.
Over the next six months and beyond, there will certainly be a “new normal” dictating how we, as an essential business, support farmers. Agriculture as a whole is a relationship-driven business. With irrigation being one of the most crucial elements of growing crops, we will have to adapt to even more innovative ways of staying in touch with our customers remotely and providing the services and support they need during these times. For Valley Irrigation, this is where we look to increase our technology footprint of remote communications at different levels, to ensure we are able to support our growers’ operations.
Teaching at Cal Poly State University, we have seen dramatic changes to the way higher education is offered and delivered to our students. Asking a graduating senior to come back next year to finish a course that is only offered in the spring was not an option, so all of our classes had to move to a virtual platform. We had a week as instructors to transform our lectures and hands-on labs to meaningful virtual online courses. To adapt, I moved my lectures to live Zoom meetings, which, in some ways, was better than traditional lectures because the lectures are recorded. This gives access to students who couldn’t make it to class or additional review time for those who maybe didn’t quite understand a topic or equation. To give them a “learn by doing” lab, we filmed them in the first person as much as possible. In other words, they had to read pressure gauges, record volumes of water, time things and/or take measurements as if they were in the field. The approach has gotten positive feedback.
I wouldn’t say that it will be business as usual for the next six months, but it appears the ag industry is pretty stable in California. Most of the people that I talk to are very busy this time of year, and it doesn’t seem any different this year. My research topics are largely around recycled water and reuse. This didn’t stop because of the pandemic, as people still flush toilets and we need to utilize the water. I’ve continued to collect samples, conduct analysis and write reports. I believe much of the ag industry is in a similar situation.
COVID-19 has been challenging in several different ways to our operation. First is the safety of our employees and their families. Being an industry that is exempt from the stay-at-home order, we have had to take extra precautions to ensure that safety. We must talk to everyone about staying at least 6 feet apart and working from a distance in the field as well as while they are on their breaks. We are also supplying everyone with the equipment they need to be safe. Finding that safety equipment has been difficult like other industries. Furthermore, it has been difficult dealing with the psychological trauma of possibly catching the virus, spreading it around the farm and then to the community. Through all this and the normal daily challenges, the agriculture community stepped up and really delivered. People stayed on the front line working hard to produce food for everyone. Throughout this pandemic, like regular life, we delivered so people can eat.
The news has really talked about the heroes of this pandemic. I agree with everyone they pointed out; however, I think they missed one important group. That is the farming community. Our days never stopped. We never stayed at home. We had to stay working to ensure food was on everyone’s table. For that I thank everyone that came to work on my farm and all the farms across this country.
Unlike most industries agriculture is essential for human life. People must eat. Over the next six months should be very interesting. Prices have taken a hit over the last couple of months. Some of this is due to COVID-19; however, not completely. We are still dealing with the trade war with China as well as in some crops, record production. It has not been bad for all industries. With so many people staying home and cooking, some commodities have really seen an increase in consumption. Processing tomatoes (canned, sauces, and paste) and wine under $30 have really seen an increase in sales, for example. Agriculture is always somewhat of a gamble. As the world comes out of this pandemic and hopefully people get back to normal, they will start back to their old habits. That will be good for restaurants and the economy. One industry that really benefits from the restaurant industry is leafy greens (salad components). Most people don’t make large salads just for a meal at home however, they do when they go out. Another factor is shipping exports. With some counties relaxing there stay-at-home orders as others are just beginning there’s, the next six months should help agriculture improve shipments domestically as well as ship offshore.
We have made several changes to ensure the safety and health of our employees. We have not only enabled more people to work from home but have created split shifts in stores to guarantee social distancing. Overall, we have adapted quickly to the needs of customers and employees through greater use of technology.
The change in service demand for fresh produce has no doubt created financial strain on many producers. Similar to RDO, many customers have reduced the human interaction for safety purposes and have in some cases reduced staff. However, I see most customers resilient and responding to market conditions very well.
As the demand continues to increase, I see growers cautiously ramping the business up. I firmly believe technology will be used more often to maintain social distancing and improve efficiency for most organizations.
Different geographies and customer types have seen varied responses to COVID-19, with some being affected in a major way while others not at all, but overall the ag irrigation market has been strong. Agriculture has been affected by the heavy reduction of demand from restaurants, hotels, airlines, etc. but the irrigation industry is typically more forward-looking. We have remained incredibly busy assisting our agricultural customers with technologies to feed the world, which is a job that can’t be ignored, and it is fundamental during good times and essential during challenging times.
I predict that as things start to wind down and restrictions are relaxed, a strong resurgence in delayed projects will occur. There will certainly be a new normal, but Netafim’s investment in digital transformation will definitely put us ahead of the game. We are prepared to adapt as necessary to continue to serve our customer, the American farmer.
First, we are all in this together. We are all impacted by the new reality, and witnessing (whether first-hand or remotely) the astronomical numbers of individuals affected by this pandemic has been overwhelming for all of us. From a business standpoint, we are affected with a decreased ability to meet our customers face to face. In order to resolve this, we implemented a major change at Netafim USA which was to accelerate the adoption of digital tools to ensure the safety of our employees and customers. These tools allowed us to safely socially distance, while remaining strong operationally, and maintaining close contact with our dealers and customer base. Netafim started a fairly comprehensive digital revolution a few years ago already, in order to empower employees that are remote, and COVID-19 definitely put us to the test. Luckily, we were ready. An example of this is the fact that we quickly put together more than 20 webinars in a few weeks, to keep our customers informed and trained on the latest developments and innovations of Netafim. Other changes relate to making sure our employees at the manufacturing plants and warehouses are safe at all times. We developed remarkably detailed plans to ensure that.