The Marines have a motto, “Semper fidelis,” which means always faithful or always loyal. A twist on that is “Semper Gumby,” the motto of Marine parents that means always flexible, according to a former coworker whose son served. Considering the strange twists and turns this year has taken, those Marine parents may be onto something.
Farming has always required flexibility with unpredictable weather, pest pressures and market swings. But 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic, followed by hurricanes and wildfire smoke, has been one of those years that demands another level of flexibility.
The downhill slide began in mid-March, when coronavirus breached our shores, causing an almost-overnight shutdown of restaurants and other public gatherings. Food suppliers had to pivot as food service typically purchases in bulk, not the 1- or 2-pound bags that consumers buy. A mill set up to ship to industrial users can’t just switch to consumer packaging. They have to order smaller bags, ensure they have a home for that bagged rice and have trucks to haul the packages to grocery distribution centers.
At the same time, the public began panic buying at grocery stores, not knowing what the quarantine would bring. Before the pandemic, 51% of each food dollar was spent on food away from home. In a matter of days, 95-plus percent of meals were being prepared at home. Rice, being a shelf stable, easy to cook comfort food, was in demand. In fact, it was one of the top 10 sales gainers since the pandemic began this spring, according to the trade magazine Supermarket News.
Although the nation wasn’t close to running out of rice during the early weeks of the pandemic, bare grocery store shelves told another story. The hiccups in the supply chain seem to have smoothed out, and empty shelves of rice currently are the exception rather than the norm.
Then hurricanes came ashore along the Texas-Louisiana border this summer and early fall, causing catastrophic damage along the Gulf. Most Southwest Louisiana producers had harvested their first crop of rice before Hurricane Laura hit. But the accompanying strong winds ripped tops off grain bins and knocked down power lines, leaving growers without the electricity needed to power fans on bins to dry the crop. Then Hurricane Delta struck as the ratoon crop was nearing harvest, yanking kernels off panicles and leaving bare stems standing.
California producers faced their own challenges this summer as smoke from north-state wildfires blanketed the Sacramento Valley in September, reducing temperatures and sunlight. Some days, air quality was so bad that the Environmental Protection Agency recommended no outdoor activity. Although the smoke delayed drydown and harvest, it was late enough in the season that it didn’t affect pollination and yields like it did in 2018.
As 2020 winds down, it can’t end soon enough. Happy holidays, and let’s hope that bendable green toy from yesteryear heads back to the toybox in 2021 where it belongs.