Being there for each other by staying apart: Coronavirus and social distancing


We are starting to contend with COVID-19 in the United States.  Ag markets have fallen off sharply; futures prices for our two major commodities, wheat and feeder cattle, have plunged (see, and there are now Coronavirus cases here in Montana and throughout the U.S.

What does it mean for farmers and ranchers here in Montana? The economic hardship is and will be real here, as it is now and will be in other places as well. But there’s another factor for our ag community to consider. Based on a study done by the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, the most comprehensive resource currently available, as well as our own (U.S.) CDC’s advice, older adults–particularly over 60 years–are at a much higher risk of dying from COVID-19.  The average age of Montana ag producers is 58; 36% are over 65.  Additionally, living and working in rural areas means limited access to hospital beds, which were required by 13.8% of the people who tested positive for the virus in the Chinese study.  (An additional 4.7% were listed as critical—requiring intensive care.)

The economics of disease prevention, externalities, and what can be done.   The CDC has lots of useful information on how to protect yourself.  Of course, wash your hands.  Don’t touch your face.  But the importance of social distancing—limiting physical contact with other people as much as possible and definitely large crowds of people, has made its way to the forefront of the recommendations for slowing disease spread.

The more infected people in a community, the more infections can spread.  Particularly for young, healthy people, who are more likely to see mild symptoms, the private cost of contracting the virus is less than the social cost.  (This is a pretty textbook example of what economists call an externality.) But mildly symptomatic people are still contagious.  Being infected, even with those mild symptoms, could result in spreading it to other people, and those people spreading to others, and so on.  To illustrate that, you can check out this fascinating simulation from the Washington Post that illustrates how slowing movement can dramatically slow exposureThe percentage of people requiring hospitalization, if spread were to continue in the way it has, would quickly overwhelm our hospital system.

I think a lot of folks in ag are used to spending time alone, out in the field or in the machine shop.  This is a time to exercise those alone time skills, to the extent possible.  If you’ve got time to kill, send me an email:!  I’m working from home and would love to hear from you.  Seriously, tell me about what fields are looking like, what movies you’re watching, or if you know of good Coronavirus resources that might be helpful to people (I can post them here or communicate them to someone higher up).  On that note, check out this NPR story on a study led by scientists at Montana’s own Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, on how long Coronavirus can live on different surfaces an how to clean them.

Thanks for tips an resources from fellow DAEE economists Mariana Carrera and Anton Bekkerman

Update:  MSU Extension now has a COVID-19 resource page available here:



About Author

Kate Binzen Fuller is an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. She holds an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. Her extension and research program focuses on the economics of farm management decisions, including USDA programs and policies, pest and disease responses, and issues surrounding leasing and land values. Kate’s extension program takes her on the road often, resulting in a rapidly expanding knowledge and appreciation for Montana’s interstates, highways, and (especially) gravel roads.

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