Wisconsin farmers are part of the reason there continues to be safe food available during the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the industry’s struggles with lost markets and low prices, Gov. Tony Evers said, it is important to get relief funding in the hands of farmers as quickly and simply as possible.

“There’s a lot of stress on the industry, there was before this pandemic and the pandemic has amped it up,” Evers said May 12 during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal webinar. “... For agriculture, any application or request for funds will be as simple as possible. The people in the agriculture industry are working damn hard every day, and they don’t have a lot of time to mess with bureaucracy.”

The state of Wisconsin has received $1.9 billion through the federal relief legislation passed in March known as the CARES Act, and the state government is working with agricultural organizations on how exactly to distribute the portion of those funds that can be directed toward farmers.

“The governor is trying to find ways to get dollars in the hands of farmers,” said Randy Romanski, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim secretary. “He understands the challenges that are out there right now.”

Evers said the state may have to look at the way larger meat processors operate after the livestock industry hit a bottleneck with several closures due to COVID-19.

“Should we look at ways to incentivize our local processors, the smaller processors, that may not have the same problems the large processors have? I would say yes,” he said. “But we need to start thinking about that right now. This type of pandemic may not visit us for another 20 years, or it may come back next fall.”

“A lot of those smaller meat-processing facilities, many people know them, they’re a local business, they take local animals. They’ve really stepped up,” Romanski said. “They’re working additional hours and taking on additional animals. They’re not letting that animal go to waste. They’re getting products out there.”

For farmers needing further assistance than what the state can provide after distribution of CARES Act funding, Evers recommended they look to programs provided by the federal government.

“We have to balance our budget, they don’t. We cannot run deficits at the state level,” Evers said. “The CARES money isn’t coming out of the state coffers, because they’re empty. In the ag area, because there has always been and always will be a strong connection between the health of the nation and the health of the federal budget and agriculture, they’re intertwined. We need to continue to advocate for their help.”

As part of the CARES Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were given $48.9 billion in funding that included $9.5 billion in direct assistance for farmers and $14 billion in funding for the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, from which the USDA borrows to make payments. From there, the USDA came up with $16 billion in direct assistance to farmers and ranchers as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and more than $3 billion in food purchases. Further details on those programs were expected in late May, according to Sandy Chalmers, executive director for the USDA’s Wisconsin Farm Service Agency.

“USDA is working hard to clear the market of surplus food and get it in the hands of those who are needy right now,” Chalmers said May 7 during a UW-Extension Supporting Farmers During Challenging Times webinar.

Romanski said he was happy to see the USDA commodity-purchase programs for food box donations get up and running, but that his department was still working on getting more information on where the product will be coming from.

“We want to move healthy, nutritious products from the farms to consumers, whether through purchase or donations to the food insecure,” he said.

Joy Kirkpatrick, outreach specialist UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability, said May 7 during the Supporting Farmers During Challenging Times webinar that the federal government made several programs available to farmers that hadn’t been available in the past.

The Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Administration was, in some cases, made available to farmer by the CARES Act. The CARES Act also made some disaster-relief loans and, in limited cases, unemployment insurance available to farmers, Kirkpatrick said.

“All of these programs were unavailable to farmers just a few weeks ago,” she said.

Kirkpatrick said officials are working through the details on all the programs and recommended farmers take a close look at all the programs with an expert before making a decision on what might be right for their farm. She also recommended farmers act quickly to make sure funds remain available.

“We thought we had the perfect storm after four years of tight margins and then the trade wars began,” she said. “Now, on top of those is something even harder to imagine and hard to know what the right decision is for your business.”