Yes, we really do need each other

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of the interdependency of all parts of the food chain.

Pig carcasses hang from an overhead conveyor at a Smithfield Foods Inc. pork processing facility in Milan, Mo., on April 12, 2017. Daniel Acker / Bloomberg

When I was growing up, I once came across a decades-old photo of food being destroyed in the Great Depression. Even though I was just a kid, it bothered me.

Now we're all seeing new images of food being destroyed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Dumped milk, euthanized hogs, plowed-under crops and more — they're painful on many levels. Wasted food, down-the-drain investments and unrealized profit opportunities bother just about everyone, regardless of whether they're involved directly in agriculture.

The images also are a reminder, or should be, of the interdependency that permeates modern agriculture. There are close and vital connections within agriculture and between ag and the rest of society.

There's especially true in the supply chain, or the multiple processes by which food travels from fields to grocery shelves and restaurants. Yes, obviously, farmers play an essential role in that. But so do truck drivers, meat plant workers, grocery store employees, restaurant servers and all the other hardworking folks involved in the supply chain. The pandemic reminds us that all parts of the supply chain are necessary for it to function properly.

I sometimes hear a handful of farmers and ranchers complain about the so-called "middleman," or the people who help to bring food from field to table. With all due respect, cut the complaints. Though there are legitimate questions about how much profit should go to the various sectors of the supply chain, there's no honest disagreement that all those sectors need occasional profitably. Besides, most of those supposedly nefarious middlemen are ordinary Americans doing their best to support themselves and their families.


The painful images also are a reminder of the close connection between farmers and consumers. Consumers need food, farmers need people to buy what they raise. That's as basic and obvious as life ever gets.

Through the years, I've heard a few farmers say with a sneer that "consumers need us more than we need them." That may or may not be true. Either way, minimizing the value of customers is bad public relations at best, flat-out dumb at worst. Ag needs them, they need ag.

That mutual dependency is just as true within agriculture, though agriculturalists don't always recognize it. Sure, people in ag like to present a unified front to the rest of the world, posing as one, big happy band of brothers and sisters. The truth is, farmers and ranchers can be critical at times of their ag bankers, local grain elevators, implement dealers and other ag businesses they patronize. And sometimes what's best for one side isn't best for the other.

But farmers and others in ag always need each other. Banking is a perfect example. Farmers need the access to credit (and outside perspective) that ag bankers provide. Bankers, in turn, need a stable customer base to borrow money and repay it with interest.

Farmers need to sell their grain, grain elevators need to buy it. Farmers need equipment to operate, implement dealers need people to buy it. Farmers need impartial, expert advice, extension officials need people to give it to.

And, yes, agricultural journalists need people to read what we write. Though I'm biased, I'd like to think that people need to read it, too. Or at least will benefit from doing so.

Interdependency exists; it's inevitable and unavoidable. We really do need each other. If nothing else good comes from it, the pandemic may at least help us to remember that.

Jonathan Knutson welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at Box 6008, Grand Forks, ND 58206-6008. Email him at, or call him at 701-780-1111. Knutson is a staff writer for Agweek.

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