Todd Hays’ family has been farming in Monroe City for seven generations. But the COVID-19 pandemic is causing problems in the farming industry that he says his family has never faced.
Hays, who is also vice president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, is one of tens of thousands of Missouri farmers who have applied for federal relief funding to offset the enormous financial losses caused by the pandemic.
According to an April report from Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, net income for farmers is expected to drop $20 billion in 2020. Crop prices were expected to decline by as much as 10% and prices of livestock by as much as 12%.
Hays is a livestock farmer. When the pandemic hit Missouri, the plants that usually process his livestock or dairy products reduced their capacity by as much as 50 to 75%, he said.
That means plants are now facing a backlog. Milk that can’t be processed within a few days will have to be thrown away, Hays said. And when farmers butcher their livestock, they must get it to a plant quickly otherwise it will spoil.
Farmers have no shortage of livestock. But because of the lack of processing plants, the prices have increased for meat at grocery stores — an ironic situation, Hays said.
Jason Morris, Linn County engagement specialist in agriculture and environment, said at the beginning of the pandemic, he heard a lot of questions from the community about meat and milk processing. Now, Morris said the questions are about the price index for farmers and producers.
“It seems that prices across the board for all agriculture products is not at the median and in some cases below average,” he said.
Spencer Tuma, director of national legislative programs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, said farmers haven’t been breaking even.
“Some people are really surprised by that because you did see in some cases the price of beef at the grocery store go up. But that did not result in higher prices received at the farm level,” she said.
Disruptions to the food supply chain are also seen at the international level. The ports in the U.S. that handle imports and exports have a smaller workforce because some workers have contracted COVID-19. These shipping areas have installed stricter protocols to ensure worker safety, but this causes delays in shipments.
Twenty percent of U.S. farmers’ income is tied directly to international markets, Tuma said.
“There’s been some countries that have said, ‘We don’t want to buy things from countries that have high levels of COVID-19,’” Hays said.
The U.S. has the world’s highest confirmed number of coronavirus cases.
Federal aid for farmers
Since the pandemic began, Hays has been operating at a loss. He’s had to sell his animals for less money than they’re worth. And he’s far from the only one.
As of July, over 31,000 farmers in Missouri have been approved for the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which will provide up to $16 billion in direct payments to U.S. farmers and ranchers impacted by the pandemic. Missouri has over 95,000 farms, according to a 2017 USDA census.
The funding has gone to cattle producers, dairy producers, row crop producers and specialty crop producers.
The CFAP provides “vital financial assistance” to farmers who have suffered from supply chain disruptions and lower commodity prices due to COVID-19, said Jennifer Claypole, outreach specialist for the USDA-MO Farm Service Agency.
“The disruption to markets and demand is significant and these payments will only cover a portion of the impacts on farmers and ranchers,” she said.
Hays applied for the program, which is accepting applications until August 28. It makes up for a small portion of what he is losing, he said.
Hays also applied for loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help maintain his workforce.
The Small Business Administration, which administers the PPP, offers other programs to agricultural producers whose operations have been impacted by the coronavirus, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.
The U.S Department of Agriculture is also partnering with distributors whose workforces have been hurt by business closures to purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat.
How to get financial aid information
The Missouri Farm Bureau sends out weekly newsletters via social media to help prospective applicants navigate the process of signing up for federal aid. The Bureau also holds phone calls where farmers can call in and ask USDA agents questions.
County USDA offices also help. Hays uses Ralls County’s office, which sends out weekly digital newsletters to farmers.
The aid programs are run through county USDA offices, and many of those are still in the process of reopening from the pandemic, Tuma said.
“So trying to make farmers aware that they can still reach the USDA staff via phone or via email to get those applications completed has been really key in this process,” she said.
The Missouri Farm Bureau put together a web page that lists farmers who sell beef, pork, lamb and poultry directly to consumers around the state. The list also includes processors that offer services to livestock farmers and consumers.
“We want to encourage (people) to get to know the farmer that produces their food, to establish a relationship with someone in their local community who can teach them about the agricultural industry,” Tuma said. “We were seeing interest in it prior to the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has certainly put a big exclamation point on a lot of those issues.”
A call center is available for producers who would like additional one-on-one support with the CFAP application process. The number is (877) 508-8364. Information about the program is also on USDA’s website.
“We know our farmers and ranchers are facing a tough time now, and we are making every effort to provide much needed support as quickly as possible,” Claypole said.
MU’s Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute has compiled a COVID-19 Q&A that includes information about financial relief.
The Missouri Farmers Union also has a list of different aid available to Missouri farmers.
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