The Hill: Senators address the 'devastation' farmers face during coronavirus pandemic

by Alexandra Kelley

A group of senators called for greater funding to rural communities in America as part of the federal coronavirus relief packages, highlighting the unique challenges COVID-19 poses for these areas.

This comes after 36 Democratic senators sent a letter Monday to multiple officials asking for more protections for the nation’s food supply and corresponding workforce after coronavirus-related slowdowns. The letter was addressed to Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

During a teleconference today, Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) discussed issues such as the lack of high-speed internet access, testing opportunities, hospital funding, vulnerable agricultural economies and food security plaguing rural areas in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The four senators specifically referenced the problems farmers and ranchers are currently facing, citing a study from the University of Oklahoma that estimates a $3.7 billion dollar loss for cow-calf producers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tester, also a third-generation farmer, noted that even prior to the pandemic smaller ranchers were struggling financially.

“Before the COVID-19 crisis we had a situation where our cow-calf producers and small and medium sized feeders were being taken to the cleaners,” he told reporters. Tester attributes this to industry consolidation that eliminates small-scale ranchers and farmers.

Additionally, the issue of a surplus in livestock is leaving farmers with too many animals on hand despite a lack of demand.

“Quite frankly, when they need to be harvested, you have to harvest them,” Tester said. Smith confirmed that the problem is compounded with nowhere for farmers to store their excess livestock.

Smith, too, notes ranchers face “devastation” after the coronavirus spread through some meat processing plants, and pork producers also have no place to take their livestock ready for harvest.

This then results in backlogs that drive prices of livestock down and prices of packaged meat higher. Tester stated that the number of kills per day has reduced, with pork and cattle down 15 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Tester believes changes to processing plants could be one solution.

Notable plants like Tyson Foods’ Columbus Junction and Waterloo, Iowa, locations, as well as the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the JBS facility in Grand Island, Neb., have all recently experienced closures due to coronavirus outbreaks among employees.

Tester said keeping meat processing facilities running depends on increasing the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) equipment for workers, as well as implementing recommended hygienic practices to keep workers employed and restock meat in grocery stores.

Recently, President Trump announced $19 billion in aid to help farmers cover expenses during the pandemic. Of that, $16 billion will be in direct assistance to farmers and ranchers, while the other $3 billion will be spent on agricultural purchases.

“The program will include direct payments to farmers, as well as mass purchases of dairy, meat and agricultural produce to get that food to the people in need,” President Trump said, according to Vox.

For Tester, however, this aid may be vital, but long-term changes have to be instituted to sustain the livestock sector.

“The consolidation we’ve seen in the cattle market for a long time is being exacerbated by this pandemic. There are critical short-term fixes that will continue to allow independent cattle ranchers to sell their product, but in the long term, we need to address the consolidation that makes it possible for the failure of just a handful of plants to compromise the security of our food supply,” Tester explained in a prepared statement.

“Rural America feeds this country,” Tester added. “And if we don’t get these folks the resources to weather this storm, we are going to be looking at problems bigger than a financial crisis.”