The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States exposed some potential issues with the food supply chain.
Images of milk being disposed of in Wisconsin, hogs slaughtered without being processed, chicken eggs smashed and vegetables being plowed under contrasted with empty shelves in grocery stores across the country.
Farmers who had suffered through half a decade of suppressed commodity prices were suddenly being asked to cut back on production or were left without a market for their products. At the same time, consumers couldn’t find enough of those same products.
As the coronavirus has shown, another supply-chain disruption could come at any time. When it does, individual states would like to be able to come to the aid of farmers more rapidly than has been the case with current federal aid packages aimed at helping those in need, according to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski.
“The U.S. (Department of Agriculture) aid packages that have been proposed so far have attempted to provide general support at a national level,” Romanski said in a May 18 interview with The Country Today. “But it hasn’t addressed the unique needs of our state.”
With relief from the federal coronavirus aid packages coming in stages, the opening round of relief was aimed at providing an immediate response to the impacts COVID-19 has had on daily life.
Romanski said future relief efforts can do more.
“COVID-19 has placed unprecedented strain on our food system,” he said. “But even before COVID-19 came along, agricultural producers and rural communities were facing some real challenges.
“Down the road, what can be done to address the unique needs of our state and other states, and how will that be used as an investment to structure our economy for future success? We are looking to invest in ways to increase the reliability of food access, stabilize the food-supply chains and the rural economy, and try to get out in front of severe potential food-supply disruptions.”
Romanski said he and other members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture are supporting a plan that would allow each state to invest in areas that are of the highest priority for them.
On May 20, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, introduced that plan, the Farming Support to States Act, to provide states access to immediate, flexible funding to aid in responding to urgent and emerging issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in America’s agriculture economy and food supply chain.
U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico, and Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
The bipartisan Farming Support to States Act is aimed at increasing the reliability of food access, stabilizing food supply chains, responding to severe food supply disruptions, preventing and reducing catastrophic losses of livestock, milk, produce and other products, and stabilizing rural economies by reducing the impact of agriculture market shocks and panicked herd and farm liquidation.
“Our farmers and food workers are serving our country by doing essential work every day to feed our country, but they are really feeling the dire economic impacts of this pandemic,” Baldwin said in a news release. “Our bipartisan legislation helps address agriculture and food supply chain disruptions so our farmers can get their products to market and to consumers. We quickly direct resources to the states so they can work with food and agriculture stakeholders to stabilize the food supply chain and help prevent more severe economic losses for farmers in rural America.”
The Farming Support to States Act would provide $1 billion for food and agriculture aid to states. USDA would allocate funds to all states and territories, with funding targeted to states based on their contributions to regional and national food systems. Funds designated for a state could be requested by a governor, state department of agriculture, or a range of other entities, with priority going to state entities and coalitions of stakeholders jointly applying. These funds will help absorb increased costs of necessary COVID-19 response actions that public, non-profit, and private entities face. They would also help states stand up responses to triage and manage the additional logistical costs of getting food to consumers and keeping the agricultural economy moving as much as possible. These actions are essential to keep supply chains running.
“While the proposals that USDA has talked about on the front end — things like direct payments that are coming and the Paycheck Protection Program — have had limited use in Wisconsin and have had some implementation issues, those things were a response,” Romanski said. “This next round is a look towards recovery.”
Romanski said hog depopulation in Iowa and Minnesota has resulted in issues with carcass disposal and composting that are in some ways similar to what Wisconsin had to work through with milk disposal.
“It’s a serious and immediate impact for local economies,” Romanski said. “Each state has its own unique economic stresses to deal with, and thinking about what that means to programs could be different from state to state.
“That’s why the availability of a pot of flexible resources for states to deal with agricultural impacts long-term is really valuable. One size does not fit all. It’s not business as usual. We need to have the ability to structure something that each state can use.”
Romanski said all Wisconsin meatpacking facilities were operational as of mid-May. He said employees are making all possible efforts to relieve bottlenecks in the supply chain and that smaller facilities are stepping in to try to relieve some of the congestion.
“There are additional animals that need to be moved in order to not be euthanized,” Romanski said. “A lot of the smaller, state-inspected plants are taking on additional animals. Oftentimes what’s happening is the processed meat is being sold, so there’s still a price going to the farmer.
“In a lot of cases in Wisconsin, we’ve seen those animals able to be moved and processed.”
Romanski said any potential future COVID-19 relief package is likely to include funds intended to absorb increased costs of coronavirus detection and response, but he would like to see a package include actions to keep supply chains moving.
“There’s no way to predict this. We’re all just trying to respond,” he said. “We’re trying to look at ways to stabilize the supply chain in the event of other disruptions, some way to prevent the catastrophic losses of livestock, milk and produce.”