- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2020

Social distancing has had little to no direct effect on agricultural production, farmers say, but the health of pickers, packers, planters and even mechanics who repair trucks on the front lines of the farming economy is an immediate concern.

“So, say, I’ve got four employees when it’s time to plant corn here on the first of May,” said Dave Milligan, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. “What happens when all my employees are sick? Or the guy that’s supposed to deliver fertilizer for me? Or what if my truck breaks down? Is the warehouse going to have the parts?”

Some of America’s 2.5 million farm workers will stay home to protect themselves from the coronavirus or will be unable to come to work because of illness, say economists and health experts. Farm country is bracing itself for what the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls “aversion behavior by workers.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronaviruses cannot be transmitted through foods or food packaging. But the fear in agricultural circles is of a labor shortage and damage to the supply chain.

“We need to keep this beef supply moving and cattle moving through the system,” said Colin Woodall, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, adding that, contrary to empty store shelves or meat lockers, the country doesn’t “have a beef shortage.”



Stock growers are ready and raring to bring cattle to market, Mr. Woodall said. “But if we see one of these packing plants [hit], that will make our market shortage,” he added.

Leading meat processors such as Tyson Food, Hormel and Cargill, have offered bonuses and extended sick leave for workers in order to ensure continuity.

As of Thursday, no beef processors had reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their packing houses. But a worker at a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, tested positive for the coronavirus. The plant employs 3,600 workers and produces pork, bacon, hot dogs and deli meats.

There’s also a fear that the federal government might cut off U.S. fields from the seasonal migrant laborers who work them in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus. As of Thursday, the State Department no longer was processing new H-2A visas, which allow foreign nationals to enter the U.S. for seasonal or temporary agricultural work.

“We’ve not heard of a problem — at least in avocados — with a shortage of labor yet,” said Tom Bellamore, the president of the California Avocado Commission. “But it’s something we’re continually monitoring.”

The $2 trillion economic stimulus bill pending approval in the House would shore up agricultural programs such as a Depression-era commodity credit program for farmers and ranchers, as well as funding for food safety inspectors, which will allow packinghouses to stay open.

“You may think that agriculture, by its rural characteristic, would be spread out and [a virus] would have minimal effect,” said Glen Smith, board chairman at the Farm Credit Association in McLean, Virginia. “But you forget that we have certain concentrations, [such as] in the processing business.”

What’s more, the overall economy weighs heavily on agricultural markets. Earlier this month, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange closed its floor to traders to avoid coronavirus infections. Before the stimulus firmed up this week, wheat, corn and beef prices all had dropped.

There’s also lingering soreness from the blow dealt farm country in the U.S. trade war with China. While net farm income in the U.S. was estimated to reach $92.5 billion last year (an 8% increase from 2018), any bump was attributed to the $16 billion trade aid instituted by President Trump during the height of the standoff.

“We’re still not over that trade war,” said Mr. Milligan, a farmer in Case City, Michigan.

He said the trade impasse only compounded his woes caused by heavy rains, which prevented him from getting his full crop in for the first time in his farming career.

“When you have a country that buys from you consistently and then you tell them they can’t buy from you anymore and they go somewhere else … they might say, ‘We kind of like this new guy’” he said.

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