As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the ag industry, local producers share their views

by David M. Johnson

For the last several weeks the nation has been turned upside down due to the onslaught of the COVID-19 affliction. Businesses have been shut down, the medical community has been overwhelmed, people have been shuttered in their homes, and a number of citizens have either become gravely ill or have succumbed to the dark side of this illness.

A number of states have completely shut down all activity except those deemed essential to the security and well-being of the state. Iowa has resisted the siren song to join others and completely shut her doors until this shadow of this zoonotic scourge has impacted all lives.

One would think that the isolation of the fields and plains of rural America would experience immunity to the conflict and desperation of this internecine paralysis of the numerous heavily-populated communities of America. Farmers have been able to ply their trade, planting their crops, milking their dairy herds, nurturing and managing their cattle, hogs and poultry.

Most rural communities have had small numbers of infection and have not had to deal with the consequences when the virus rears its ugly head and strikes down large segments of the population, such as in the metropolitan areas. But now that has even changed.

American food processing plants are beginning to rival hot spots like New York City and Washington, D.C. with their infection rates. Much like in those metropolitan transit systems or sidewalk areas, inside the plants there exists a close proximity of the working conditions, making it difficult for social distancing. With the sometimes elbow-to-elbow work stations, COVID-19 has made its presence known.

Smithfield Foods had hundreds of its employees become ill in its Sioux Falls, SD plant and it has spread to the company’s other plants in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri. JBS Packerland in Minnesota and Wisconsin has had workers in its plants become ill, and that has crippled production. Plants dealing with dairy products are joining packing plants in a decline of production due to a sick workforce.

Tyson Food’s chairman of the board, John Tyson, has gone on record warning the nation that, “The food supply chain is breaking.” Iowa has felt the brunt of plant closures from Columbus Junction to Waterloo in recent weeks. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has included processing plants and its workers as essential to the integrity of the state’s infrastructure and has left the plants open from day one but the virus has had other ideas.

As huge swaths of workers have succumbed to the virus, plants began to close. The ripple effect of plant after plant closing its doors across Iowa and the Midwest has not only affected product availability at grocery stores but also the producers on the farm that supply the processing facilities with their product.

Dairymen have been dumping their milk, eggs have been destroyed and pork producers have begun to euthanize their herds. In early May, WMT Radio reported that a rendering truck company has been working non-stop removing dead hogs that have been euthanized, one trucker witnessing a herd removal of almost 5,000 head at one site in Minnesota.

According to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Iowa has lost processing for an estimated 50,000 pigs a day due to the virus. Iowa pork producers have lost 40% of the processing capacity. Beef producers are holding on to cattle that should be going to slaughter but are, instead, languishing on the farm with nowhere to go.

With panic runs on items like toilet paper, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to foresee panic runs on meat, dairy and eggs. In Colorado, eggs were selling for six dollars a dozen as consumers began to fear food shortages. President Trump, to forestall any food shortages, has invoked the Defense Production Act with an executive order to address threats of possible meat shortages.  Working with Congress, there are now financial packages to give dairy farmers and other producers funds for the shortfalls that are being experienced on the farm.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued new safety guidance for employers and employees of meat, dairy and poultry processing plants. Workers at plants may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, as long as they are asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them, the CDC said. After recent short-term closures, some processing facilities began to ease their way back into operation with a number of prevention measures in place, but the demand for their services still far outweighs their ability to meet that demand.

With analysts reporting that about 33% of the United States meatpacking capacity has been gone with workers out sick with the virus, there is a rush to implement safety procedures to ensure that the number does not continue to grow. Until everything is in place, what might the situation be for the farmer and rancher waiting for things to fall into place so they can proceed with moving their livestock and dairy to be processed? How are local producers handling this crisis?

Dan Schmitt of Waukon, a member of the Allamakee County Cattlemen’s Association, is observing lower bidding prices for herd producers, hearing where the bidding price is ranging somewhere from 93 cents to 97 cents. Schmitt and beef and dairy producer Tom Gavin of Lansing both are seeing local producers backed up with cattle as the packing plants are slowed by the virus. Gavin relayed that he is sitting on seven loads of beef with nowhere to go as no one can take on his cattle at this time.

Schmitt believes that packers have been abusing producers for years and now have producers “between a rock and a hard place.”  Gavin feels that the beef producer is probably worse than the dairy producer but hopes that with businesses opening up, especially restaurants, there will be avenues for meat and dairy to move more easily to the consumer.

Both see some glimmer of hope with the President’s order to packing plants to stay open, but Schmitt asks a pertinent question, “The order is a good thing but who is going to work in them if the workers are sick? You’ve got to have people in there that have to know what they are doing.  You can’t just put anybody in there, like the National Guard.”

Gavin and local dairyman Jeremy Peake, both members of the Allamakee County Dairy Promotion Board, are seeing local dairymen being overwhelmed more than they have been in the past with COVID-19 striking and resulting in ill workers in dairy plants, as well as demand not being as high for milk and other dairy products with schools and restaurants being closed. What dairymen were receiving for their milk has been a depressed market since 2014 and now is even worse because farmers are not only getting less for their milk, but there is an increasing problem with outlets not buying milk from the farm.

“I have not seen local producers dumping their milk, like in Wisconsin,” commented Peake, but he considers himself fortunate as he is organic and his operation, for now, has an outlet to sell his milk as there is a demand for organic milk at the present time.

Both Gavin and Peake hope that a reopening of the business sector will result in an opening of plants purchasing milk once more. Peake is worried that the economy might not bounce back and that the economy could slip into a recession, making it tougher for local milk producers. Gavin looks at the situation as, “doing what we do, we hope for the best.”

Jeff Monk of Waukon organized and jump-started local pork producers into an Allamakee County Pork Producers organization, something that has been dormant for several years in the local area. He has been listening to several pork farmers and observed many frustrated local farmers. As of today, he has not witnessed any sites euthanizing their herds like in surrounding counties.

“The people in the industry love ag, they love what they do,” observed Monk, adding that farmers need to produce food to keep things going and noting that one positive out of the current situation is that the greater public is finally realizing that food comes from the farmer and not from the grocery store. He said there has existed a cognitive dissonance for years as generations are increasingly being removed from rural backgrounds and these generations are ensconced into an urban environment. He hopes that what is happening to food producers during this pandemic has opened some eyes in the cities.

With CDC guidelines for workers in plants and a reawakening with a draw down on mitigation, Monk anticipates things slowly getting back to normal, which is good for the pork producer and farming in general. He believes that pork is a high quality product which will encourage high demand when everything gets back to the way it was before the lock-downs.

As the nation begins to attempt to recover, there will be many questions and challenges as these uncharted waters continue to be navigated. As society bulls its way back to the top, farmers will be there to continue their leadership as the bread basket for the nation and the world.

The agricultural industry will be needed as never before as recovery efforts unfold and that demand for food will hopefully fuel a return to a profitable future for farmers.  Napoleon observed that an “army marches on its stomach.” That can be said of a nation as well, and with the shelves in grocery stores stocked by farms, the nation can once again return to living out the American dream.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet