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Eating-out expenditures in May 2020 were 37 percent lower than May 2019 expenditures

Friday, August 7, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders dramatically impacted Americans’ food spending in spring 2020. Inflation-adjusted expenditures at grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other food-at-home retailers were 19.3 percent higher in March 2020 compared with March 2019. This same spending was 3.1 percent higher in April 2020 than in April 2019, and 3.9 percent higher in May 2020 than in May 2019. Comparing spending for the same month accounts for seasonal food spending patterns. Inflation-adjusted March 2020 expenditures at eating-out establishments—restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out places—were 28.3 percent lower than March 2019 expenditures. In April and May 2020, food-away-from-home spending was down 50.8 and 37.2 percent, respectively, when compared to the same months one year ago. During the Great Recession of 2007-09, expenditures on both food at home and food away from home decreased, with the largest decrease occurring in February 2009. Unlike previous economic shocks, COVID-19 led to a pronounced substitution from food away from home to food at home in part due to the spring 2020 stay-at-home orders and the fact that many eating-out businesses were operating at a limited capacity or had ceased operations completely. The data in this chart are from the Economic Research Service’s Food Expenditure Series data product, updated July 21, 2020.

Demand for direct-hire labor in agriculture is seasonal

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has decreased labor availability in many sectors of the economy. In agriculture, labor inputs consist of unpaid farm operator labor (including spouse and family labor), direct-hire labor, and labor contracted through a third party. In 2018, 62 percent of total farm labor hours were unpaid, while the remaining 38 percent were paid. The majority (82 percent) of labor expenditures were to compensate hired employees, while 18 percent were spent on contracted labor. Paid labor hours are concentrated in certain time periods and regions, largely reflecting the importance and cyclicality of specialty crop production (which includes fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops). In the Atlantic region, paid labor hours peaked in the first quarter, whereas in the rest of the country, labor hours peaked in the second or third quarters. The Western region of the United States accounted for 35 percent of total employee labor hours, and the bulk of labor hours (37 percent) were recorded in the third quarter. If last year’s patterns hold, demand for farm-employed labor in the West could steadily increase and peak in the summer months. While the data in this chart predate the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers have been deemed essential and information on the demand for these workers can provide insight into the potential impacts of the pandemic. This chart is based on data from the Economic Research Service data product, ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, updated July 2020.

Falling hog weights suggest the hog industry is managing supply-chain disruptions from COVID-19

Monday, August 3, 2020

Falling slaughter weights of hogs suggest that the U.S. hog industry is managing the supply-chain consequences of COVID-19, with weights falling almost 4 percent since their peak during the week of May 15, 2020 (calendar week 20). Due to the pandemic’s spread to workers at pork processing facilities, slaughter schedules were postponed and/or reduced, causing market-ready animal back-ups in the tightly sequenced—but usually-smooth—operating process. There are indications that many producers have raised the ceilings on stocking rates of production buildings, meaning that more animals are stocked in barns than was the pre-COVID practice. Additionally, many animals have reportedly been placed on maintenance rations, diets relatively low in protein, which tends to slow weight gain. This is critical because conventional slaughter plants often experience safety and technical difficulties processing hogs weighing more than 300 pounds. These measures, together with higher summer temperatures—which tend to decrease swine appetites—and rebounding processing capacity utilization, have contributed to reducing the weekly average slaughter weights of federally inspected hogs from their May 15 peak. This chart is drawn from the Economic Research Service’s Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook from July 2020.

The number of hogs sold or removed per farm increased from 1998 to 2015

Friday, July 31, 2020

Contract operations (where the hog owner pays a per-unit fee to producers to care for the animals) sold or removed an average of 8,625 hogs per farm in 2015, an increase of about 3,500 from 1998. By comparison, non-contract operations (where producers own the hogs they raise) sold or removed an average of 5,217 hogs per farm in 2015, an increase of about 3,700 from 1998. The removal, or depopulation, of hogs from farms has distinctly different effects on contract operations and non-contract operations. Contract operations do not incur lost value from inputs invested in depopulated herds, whereas non-contract operations stand to bear depopulation and disposal costs as well as the entire costs of foregone hog sales, including costs associated with inputs (such as feed costs) that have already been incurred. While this research predates the COVID-19 pandemic, it can provide insight into potential impacts of depopulation due to the closing of processing hog plants during the COVID-19 pandemic. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service report, U.S. Hog Production From 1992 to 2009: Technology, Restructuring, and Productivity Growth, released October 2013.

Destinations of U.S. agricultural exports have shifted over last quarter century

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The United States is the world’s second largest agricultural trader after the European Union. U.S. agricultural exports have grown significantly over the last quarter century, from $46.1 billion in 1994 to $136.7 billion in 2019. The elimination of agricultural trade barriers as a result of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—superseded by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in July 2020—nearly quadrupled exports (by value) to Canada and Mexico. Coinciding with policy developments, rising household incomes and changing trade policies in developing East and Southeast Asia have driven export growth, especially for China, whose share of U.S. agricultural exports more than quadrupled from 3 percent during 1994-2000 to 14 percent during 2010-19. Meanwhile, there has been a sharp decline in the share going to Europe and high-income East Asia, particularly Japan. These charts are drawn from the Economic Research Service product, U.S. Agricultural Trade at a Glance.

Retail prices for nearly all food-at-home categories up in June 2020 compared with June 2019

Monday, July 27, 2020

Grocery store prices were 5.6 percent higher in June 2020 compared with June 2019. Retail prices increased for all food-at-home categories except for fresh fruits. Many of these increases were influenced by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic disrupted supply chains of several commodities—and affected consumers’ food spending patterns—which put upward pressure on wholesale and retail food prices. The spring 2020 closing of schools and stay-at-home orders resulted in the dairy industry having to shift from supplying products for schools and restaurants to supplying products for grocery stores and other food retailers (food at home). Adapting to this transition placed upward pressure on retail prices for dairy products, which rose by 5.1 percent from June 2019 to June 2020. Beef also experienced supply chain disruptions: decreased slaughter volumes due to COVID-19 led to a bottleneck in supply which boosted prices. Retail beef and veal prices in June 2020 were 25.1 percent higher than in June 2019. Much of this increase occurred after February 2020. Other commodities also saw increases in retail prices. Egg prices increased 12.1 percent since June 2019, and pork and poultry prices increased 11.8 and 8.7 percent, respectively. The data for this chart come from the Economic Research Service’s Food Price Outlook data product, updated July 24, 2020.

Limited-service and full-service restaurants accounted for 73 percent of food-away-from-home spending in 2019

Friday, July 24, 2020

In 2019, U.S. consumers, businesses, and government entities spent $1.8 trillion on foods and beverages, according to the Economic Research Service’s (ERS) Food Expenditure Series. Expenditures at food-away-from-home establishments—restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating places—totaled $969.4 billion in 2019, compared to the $799.4 billion spent on food at home in grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other retailers. Full-service restaurants with wait staff and limited-service restaurants—where food is ordered and paid for at a counter or drive-thru window—dominate the U.S. food-away-from-home market. Each of these sectors accounted for over a third of food-away-from-home expenditures in 2019. Schools and colleges accounted for 7.3 percent of food-away-from-home expenditures in 2019, followed by retail stores and vending machines (4.1 percent), hotels and motels (4.0 percent), recreational places (3.5 percent), and drinking places and other food-away-from-home sales (3.2 percent). Spending on food furnished in hospitals and in group quarters—such as meals served in military barracks, prisons, and nursing homes—and the value of food commodities donated by the Federal Government totaled $47.6 billion in 2019 and accounted for 4.9 percent of food-away-from-home expenditures. While the data in this chart predate the COVID-19 pandemic, they can provide insight into its potential impact on the food-away-from-home market. The stay-at-home orders that accompanied the pandemic have caused a drop in spending on eating out, and some food-away-from-home sectors have been more affected than others. The data in this chart are from ERS’s Food Expenditure Series data product.

Large dairy operations realized gross returns that exceeded total costs

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Large dairy operations have significant financial advantages over small and midsized farms, primarily because of lower average production costs per pound of milk produced. Therefore, larger farms can earn profits during times when smaller farms bear losses. In 2016, average total costs of milk production fell from $33.54 per hundredweight among farms with 10-49 cows to $20.85 among farms with 200-499 cows. The latter costs were 21 percent higher than the average costs realized at the largest farms—those with at least 2,500 head. Larger herds realized lower gross returns because many are in regions with lower milk prices. Gross returns include milk sales, plus revenues from the sale of culled dairy animals, milk cooperative dividends, and the fertilizer value of manure. Despite their lower gross returns, lower costs led to much larger net returns among larger operations than among smaller farms. In 2016, farms with more than 1,000 head realized positive net returns on average, whereas farms with fewer head realized negative net returns on average. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020.

United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) provides an opportunity for continued growth in agricultural trade among the three member countries

Monday, July 20, 2020

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a new economic and trade agreement that modifies the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), adding provisions for continued growth in agricultural trade among the three member countries. Agriculture has a large and growing stake in interregional trade in the free-trade area created by NAFTA. The total value of intraregional agricultural trade (exports and imports) among all three NAFTA countries reached about $95.3 billion in 2019, compared with $16.6 billion in 1993 (the year before NAFTA’s implementation). Even after taking the effects of inflation into account, this expansion corresponds to an increase in intraregional agricultural trade of 252 percent. Under the ratified new agreement, which took effect on July 1, 2020, all agricultural products that had zero tariffs under NAFTA will continue to have zero tariffs under USMCA. The USMCA adds provisions on biotechnology; geographical indicators; and sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which are measures to protect humans, animals, and plants from diseases, pests, or contaminants. It also provides broader market opportunities for U.S. exports to Canada of dairy, poultry, and egg products. These new provisions, coupled with the continuation of intraregional free trade in almost all agricultural products, provides the foundation for further agricultural trade growth among the United States, Mexico, and Canada. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service’s Amber Waves article, “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) Approaches the Starting Block, Offers Growth Opportunities for Agriculture.”

U.S. agricultural exports to China to increase in FY 2020 despite COVID-19 slowdown

Friday, July 17, 2020

U.S. agricultural exports to China are projected to total $13.0 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2020, up from $10.1 billion in FY 2019. This rise in expected exports is primarily due to growth in Chinese purchases of U.S. soybeans and pork with expected additional purchases of sorghum and cotton also playing a role. This growth, much of which is expected as a result of relaxed barriers in the U.S.-China trade partnership, is projected to prevail in FY 2020 even considering the fiscal strains brought on by COVID-19. Portions of China’s economy are anticipated to continue growing while its economy as a whole is still being negatively affected by the global slowdown, especially with respect to international trade. Even amidst the negative economic effects of COVID-19 on China’s consumption of U.S. agricultural goods, China’s purchases of U.S. pork, soybeans, cotton, and other products rose in the first half of FY 2020. At this pace, U.S. exports to China are expected to increase by $2.9 billion from FY 2019, when the value of U.S. exports to China had fallen to $9.3 billion (in 2019 dollars)—its lowest point since FY 2009. This chart was drawn from the Economic Research Service’s most recent Outlook for U.S. Agricultural Trade, published in May 2020.

Impact of farm-level price volatility lessens as food gets closer to the table

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Disruptions to food production and changes in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic may impact prices for farm products. However, farm price swings generally have less impact on food prices as food gets closer to the dinner table. In 2009, the last year of the Great Recession, the production-weighted farm price of the field crops corn, wheat, and soybeans decreased by 20 percent. That same year, the Producer Price Index for intermediate foods and feeds, such as wheat flour and soybean oil, fell 9 percent. Retail food prices—including foods purchased in stores and eating places—rose 2 percent. Converting farm commodities into consumer foods, such as corn flakes and restaurant meals, requires additional production inputs such as labor, energy, packaging, transportation, and marketing. Thus, farm commodity prices are a small piece of retail food prices, particularly for highly processed products and restaurant offerings. Another reason retail food prices tend to be less volatile than farm and wholesale prices is the structure of the grocery retail industry, with large chains often using marketing contracts to smooth price spikes in the products they purchase and keep retail food prices more stable. While the data in this chart predate the COVID-19 pandemic and do not reflect its impacts on food supply chains and food demand, examining past food-price dynamics can provide insight into current events. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service’s May 2020 Amber Waves article, “Retail Food Prices Less Volatile Than Farm and Wholesale Prices.”

Counties with low educational attainment were concentrated in rural areas

Monday, July 13, 2020

Between 2014 and 2018, the United States had 316 counties with low levels of educational attainment, meaning 20 percent or more of working-age adults (ages 25-64) living in the county lacked a high school diploma or equivalent. The majority of those counties—about 4 out of 5—were in rural (nonmetro) areas. Low-education rural counties were predominantly in the South (nearly 80 percent or 208 counties) and the economies of more than one-third (116 counties) relied on farming or manufacturing. Nearly half (156 counties) were high poverty counties, with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more, and most of those counties (113 counties) also had persistently high poverty over three or more decades. In addition, almost 60 percent of low-education rural counties were in areas where African Americans alone (70 counties) or Hispanics of any race (115 counties) accounted for 20 percent or more of the total population. In these counties, the low-education rates for African Americans or Hispanics were substantially higher than corresponding rates for white (non-Hispanic) individuals. This chart appears on the ERS topic page for Rural Education, updated May 2020.

Food insufficiency in mid-June 2020 higher in some States than others

Friday, July 10, 2020

To keep track of the rapid changes in the U.S. economic landscape due to COVID-19, researchers at the Economic Research Service (ERS)—along with those at five other Federal agencies—teamed up with the Census Bureau to produce the Household Pulse Survey, a weekly, online data collection that asks respondents about their current educational, employment, health, housing, and food-related situations. The survey began in the week of April 23, 2020 and will continue until the end of July 2020. ERS researchers used the most recent data available from the new survey (June 18–June 23) to examine food sufficiency for U.S. households. Food sufficiency is distinct but related to food security: like USDA’s food security measure, it can tell us about disruptions in the quantity of foods consumed in a household. Households were classified as being "food insufficient" if they sometimes or often in the last 7 days reported not having enough to eat. Food insufficiency is comparable to the classification of “very low food security” used in USDA’s annual assessments of food security. Nationally, 9.7 percent of U.S. households were food insufficient that week, similar to the 9.8-percent U.S. average during April 23–May 5. Fifteen States had food insufficiency rates below 9.7 percent and 4 States had rates above this national average. The remaining 31 States and the District of Columbia had rates of food insufficiency statistically comparable to the national average. According to USDA’s latest food security statistics, an estimated 4.3 percent of U.S. households experienced very low food security at some time during 2018 where the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted due to a lack of money or other resources. The data for this chart are drawn from the Census Household Pulse Survey. For more information on ERS’s food security research, see the Food Security in the U.S. topic page on the ERS website.

Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The U.S. agricultural workforce consists of a mixture of two groups of workers: (1) self-employed farm operators and their family members, referred to as “unpaid labor” because their remuneration comes out of farm profits rather than a wage; and (2) paid labor such as hired and contract workers that receive wages. Overall, between 2014 and 2018, U.S. farms used about 59 percent operator, spouse, and family labor, compared to 41 percent paid labor. However, farms of different sizes relied on different mixes of labor. Principal operators and their spouses provided most of the labor hours (76 percent) used on small farms, those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 43 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 17 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 74 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Contract laborers were important on very large farms (particularly in fruit and vegetable operations), contributing 20 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

U.S. watermelon imports rise to meet growing demand

Monday, July 6, 2020

Watermelons have long been America’s favorite melon. As U.S. consumption has steadily increased over time, imports have also increased to fulfill year-round consumer demand. On average 5.1 billion pounds were consumed in 2019, a 4-percent increase from 2010, but a 5-percent decline from 2016 when consumption reached its highest level in over a decade. Watermelon produced domestically remains the main source of consumption in the United States, with production reaching 3.9 billion pounds in 2016, yet decreasing on average since 2010. Nearly 80 percent of all U.S. watermelon production hails from four States—Florida, Georgia, Texas and California. Florida surpasses all other States as the main supplier of U.S. watermelons, accounting for total production of 907 million pounds, or 25 percent of domestic supplies in 2019. Seedless varieties have become increasingly popular, and Florida’s seedless shipments from January to May 2019 rose nearly 20 percent compared to the same time period the previous year. While total domestic production of watermelon has not risen, U.S. imports have. In 2019, imports reached a record high level of 1.7 billion pounds, making up roughly a third of all watermelons consumed. Mexico supplies on average 80 percent of U.S. watermelon imports annually, including higher shipments during the United States’ off-season in early spring. This chart is based on the Economic Research Service’s Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook from March 2020.

As the rural veteran population declined, the share that were age 65 or older increased

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Veterans are a rapidly aging and increasingly diverse group, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the rural adult population in 2018. However, the number of veterans living in rural (nonmetro) areas has declined from 6.6 million in 1992 to 3.2 million in 2018. This decline was due largely to a drop in the size of the active military population (from about 3 million in 1992 to 1.3 million in 2018), natural decrease due to aging, and a tendency for younger veterans to settle in urban (metro) areas. Nearly 60 percent of rural veterans were ages 65 or older in 2018, and half of that group were ages 75 or older. By comparison, in 1992, the share of rural veterans age 65 or older was closer to 30 percent. This trend suggests that the number of rural veterans may continue to decline in the future. In addition, whether due to their military service or because of their age profile, over 30 percent of rural veterans reported having a disability in 2018, compared with about 15 percent of nonveterans. Older age and a higher incidence of disabilities may make rural veterans, as a group, increasingly vulnerable. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service report, Rural Veterans at a Glance, released November 2013.

The production of five popular vegetables relies on foreign labor

Monday, June 29, 2020

In 2019, tomatoes for the fresh market, harvested by hand, were valued at $705 million, while sweet corn production, typically harvested by hand or machine, was valued at $652 million, and sweet potatoes, for which workers are required for machine operation and post-harvest handling, was valued at $588 million. The production of these and other vegetables grown in the United States may be affected by disruptions of foreign labor flows. An estimated 10 percent of all hired farm workers are foreign nationals employed on temporary work visas under the H-2A agricultural workers program. Restrictions that affected the issuance of new H-2A visas at U.S. consulates starting March 18, 2020, were relaxed on April 20, 2020, which may have alleviated shortages of available workers. H-2A application disclosure data through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 revealed that a significant majority of the H-2A workers with job start dates of mid-March or later had been hired as laborers for asparagus, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes. These five vegetable commodities, therefore, are among those most likely to be affected by a short-term reduction in the inflow of H-2A workers. Together, these vegetables accounted for 12 percent of the total production value of U.S. vegetables in 2019. This chart is based on the Economic Research Service’s Vegetables and Pulses Outlook reports and H-2A application disclosure data from the Department of Labor.

California, New York, and Texas rank as the top 3 States in number of U.S. food and beverage processing plants

Friday, June 26, 2020

In 2017, there were 36,555 food and beverage processing plants located throughout the United States, employing more than 1.7 million people. Some of the largest States had the highest number of food and beverage processing plants: California had the most plants (5,731), followed by New York (2,573) and Texas (2,273). These were also the top three States in number of total manufacturing plants in 2017. California and Texas ranked among the top four States in agricultural production in 2017, as well. California holds an important national position in several food and beverage processing industries—including wineries (1,499 plants), fruit and vegetable processing (333 plants), and coffee and tea manufacturing (100 plants)—because of its favorable climate for growing a variety of crops and other factors, such as its large ports and other infrastructure. In addition, California ranks second only to Wisconsin in the number of dairy processing plants (140). In New York, bakery manufacturing plants were the most numerous of the State’s food and beverage processing plants (1,197) in 2017, followed by wineries (207 plants) and breweries (171 plants). The top four food and beverage processing industries in Texas in 2017 were bakery manufacturing (669 plants), animal slaughter and processing (270 plants), and wineries and breweries (152 and 135 plants, respectively). This chart appears in the Manufacturing section of the Processing & Marketing topic page on the Economic Research Service website.

Abundant U.S. honey supplies in 2019 lead to a decline in honey prices

Thursday, June 25, 2020

U.S. honey production has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, averaging about 157 million pounds per year, even as producers have grappled with significant overwinter colony losses and variable honey prices. Forage-rich North Dakota leads the nation in honey production, and together with Montana and South Dakota, these Northern Plains States produced nearly half of all U.S. honey in 2019. While the volume of honey produced domestically has been relatively steady, U.S. consumption of honey and honey-sweetened products has steadily grown since the 1980s. To supplement domestic production and meet rising demand, a growing volume of honey has been imported. Beginning in 2006, imported honey has accounted for most of the U.S. supplies, reaching 416 million pounds and nearly 70 percent of total supplies for 2019. Imports combined with beginning stocks and production made about 614 million pounds of honey available in 2019—the third highest volume on record. Abundant supplies contributed to lower prices received by producers, with prices decreasing by 24 cents per pound for a year-to-year decline of 11 percent. Lower honey prices in 2019 gave rise to a $30 million (9 percent) decline in revenue received by U.S. beekeepers from honey production. Reduced returns from honey production were exacerbated by a more than $9 million reduction in net income derived from the provision of pollination services and sales of bee products (e.g. queens, beeswax). This chart is drawn from the Economic Research Service’s June 2020 Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook.

U.S. pork processing capacity utilization rebounds as COVID-19 infections of plant labor forces recede

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Capacity utilization in the U.S. pork processing industry is on the rebound as workers in plants, earlier infected by COVID-19, recover and return to work. Defined as the extent to which a processing plant uses its installed productive capacity, capacity utilization in the U.S. pork sector was operating at or near full capacity at the beginning of April. Starting on April 6 with the temporary closure of a major plant in Iowa, virus-related labor force absences and necessary plant deep-cleaning have caused a succession of plant slow-downs and temporary closures. However, since April 29, when capacity utilization bottomed-out at 53.9 percent with a daily production of 60.4 million pounds, capacity has averaged 78.5 percent, with daily production averaging about 86 million pounds. For the balance of 2020 and into 2021, processing sector guidances issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are likely to hold capacity utilization to below pre-pandemic levels. Pork production for 2020 is forecast at about 27.8 billion pounds, less than 1 percent above 2019 production. In 2021, commercial pork production is expected to accelerate, with total pork production forecast at about 28.2 billion pounds, 1.7 percent above forecast production in 2020. Hog prices are likely to continue to lag processing industry recovery rates, reflecting back-ups of slaughter-ready animals on hog farms. Prices are expected to average $42.40 per hundredweight (cwt), almost 12 percent below average prices for 2019. Higher hog prices are expected for most of 2021, with prices for the year expected to average $46.75 per cwt, more than 10 percent above prices forecast for this year. This chart is drawn from the Economic Research Service’s June 2020 Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.

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