A1 A1
Spring fever: Weather cooperates, getting farmers into fields

Farmers across the Chippewa Valley and the state have started making progress on spring fieldwork. But before that fieldwork started, farmers had to make some difficult decisions based on the state of the agriculture industry reeling from years of low commodity prices and now dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even though farmers have been really struggling with low commodity prices across the board, it’s encouraging to see they’re still putting crops in the ground,” UW-Extension Chippewa County agriculture educator Jerry Clark said. “They’re getting through this as best they can.”

Last spring, farmers struggled to even get into their fields. From winter-killed alfalfa to heavy spring rains and late-planted corn followed by more wet weather in May and June, many farmers may now have their forage inventories stretched to the limit.

Last month, farmers took advantage of several sunny, windy days to bring in corn left standing over the winter, till fields, and apply fertilizer and manure. Planting started with small grains, alfalfa, potatoes, peas, corn, and soybeans all going in the ground in late April, according to the Wisconsin Crop Progress & Condition report released April 27 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Wisconsin office.

“We’ve had a more normal start to spring than we’ve had in several years,” Clark said. “Just before the virus started taking a toll, things were looking like they were coming around. It looked like agriculture would see a nice rebound. Now that’s not going to happen in the near future. Hopefully by fall things have turned around.”

Many alfalfa stands across the state didn’t survive the winter of 2018-19 that saw low snow cover and a polar vortex early followed by heavy snow late. Last year, more than 80% of alfalfa/forages were lost to winterkill in Clark County.

Richard Halopka, UW-Extension Clark County crops and livestock educator, said he expects there to be more acres of forage seeded this year to fill gaps in feed inventory on farms.

“Good news is forages have come through winter fairly well,” Halopka said. “A few fields seeded last year may have been stressed and may be replanted, but overall there is some forage. Many farmers have decided against alfalfa as we have had some bad years in a row; however, alfalfa does help increase yields and will help farmers fill the gap to feed livestock.”

Crop-progress reporters across the state commented that planting progress was well ahead of this time last year.

“It looks like the alfalfa came through winter pretty well; the melt was pretty gradual, so we didn’t have a lot of flooding; the fields look pretty good right now,” Clark said. “This spring looks like we should be about a month ahead of where we were at this point last year.”

All farmers adapting

With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on all aspects of the agricultural economy, farmers have been forced to be creative in coming up with ways to be less productive. With dairy-processing plants asking dairy farmers to cut production, farmers have come up with solutions from reducing milking frequency from three times a day to two times a day to changing feed rations to encourage lower production.

“Dairy farmers might have to adjust rations with an eye on production so they can get through this without having to get rid of cattle they’d rather not get rid of,” Clark said. “Some farmers are changing rations to not as high in protein to cut back on production.”

Livestock producers are finding themselves in a similar situation. With cattle that may be ready to go to market but no room available to process the cattle, farmers are trying to come up with creative ways to keep quality high while limiting costs associated with keeping the cattle on the land for longer.

“Once the larger slaughter plants get rolling again, the bottlenecks should open back up,” Clark said. “The smaller ones in Chippewa County are backed up six months, so getting cattle in there is not an option right now.”

For the past month, UW-Extension has collected fact sheets to help farmers make management decisions related to reducing milk production, the impact of dumped milk on crop production, slowing the rate of gain on hogs and cattle, and information for people to take care of themselves, Halopka said.

“Farmers are just trying to think about things a little differently,” Clark said. “There’s no silver bullet. They’re just trying to do farm work in a unique way and trying to do it as cheaply as possible.

“Farmers are optimistic things will turn around by fall.”

Halopka suggested farmers try to focus on the positive and know that there are people out there they can talk to if they are struggling.

“That is what makes farming fun and challenging: Every spring you get a do over,” Halopka said. “Everyday you can wake up and have a chance to change something. We can plant a crop, we have a new born calf, spring is a new beginning for farmers and it provides hope for a better year. That doesn’t make this job easy. A wise man once told me, ‘If it was easy everyone would do it.’ Every year provides challenges and rewards.”

Americans without accounts wait for checks

NEW YORK — As the coronavirus crisis took hold, Akeil Smith’s employer slashed her work as a home health aide to 25 hours per week. Her $15-an-hour salary no longer provided enough to pay her $700 monthly rent, and she had to visit food pantries for groceries.

While millions of U.S. workers have already received a quick relief payment from the federal treasury through direct deposit, Smith is among millions of others without traditional bank accounts who must wait weeks for paper checks. When the checks finally arrive, this disproportionately black and Hispanic population often has little choice but to use expensive check-cashing services to access the money.

“I live check to check, and right now I need more groceries,” Smith, 35, told The Associated Press as she stood inside Payomatic, a small check-cashing store in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood.

In the six weeks since the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. economy, more than 30 million American workers have filed for unemployment insurance. Congress passed a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package.

The government in April began sending $1,200 for each individual, $2,400 for each married couple and another $500 for each dependent child to poor and middle-class families across the United States. Wealthier families get either a reduced payout or nothing depending on their income.

To help smooth the delivery of the payments, the government launched an online portal for people to provide their banking information for direct deposit. But that system offered nothing to people without savings or checking accounts.

A House Ways and Means Committee memo obtained by AP estimated about 5 million paper checks will be issued each week, meaning those most in need could wait many weeks for their payments.

In Houston, Ta’Mar Bethune, a 41-year-old mother of four grown children who is raising a grandchild, is likely to wait a while. As a younger woman, she struggled for years with affording bank account fees until her account was closed. In the 1990s, she also was a victim of identity theft and never fully recovered.

More than 20 years later, Bethune still cannot pass a standard background check to open a checking account because the banking system views her as too risky, she said. To get by, she transfers the money she makes as a professional hairdresser and babysitter onto a non-bank debit card.

“They charge you an arm and a leg,” she said, citing a monthly fee and a charge for every swipe or withdrawal. “You never get your full money. It’s bad, but I have no other choice.”

Bethune receives financial coaching from the Houston Area Urban League, a nonprofit organization helping low- to moderate-income families examine their behaviors around spending and saving. The organization says many families are reluctant to open bank accounts, especially if they have been burned by the system.

“Nobody wants to be exploited,” said Carmela Walker, a financial coach for the group.

About 8.4 million U.S. households were considered “unbanked” in 2017, meaning that no one in the household had an account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Another 24.2 million households were “underbanked,” meaning they might have a bank account but members of the household also used an alternative financial service for money orders, check cashing, international remittances, payday loans and pawn shop loans, often at high costs.

Some of those services have been criticized for being predatory and marketing to black and Hispanic communities, which are disproportionately unbanked. Roughly 17% of black households and 14% of Hispanic households were without a bank account in 2017, compared with just 3% of white households and 2.5% of Asian American households, the FDIC said.

Banking is a social justice issue with the potential to widen America’s racial wealth gap, said Cy Richardson, vice president of the National Urban League.

“Black America’s economic destiny exists on a razor’s edge right now,” Richardson said.

Advocates say the federal government should use the pandemic payments as an opportunity to bring more people into the banking system via Bank On accounts, which are FDIC insured, cost $5 or less a month and do not allow overdrafts or charge insufficient-fund fees. The accounts can be used for direct deposit, purchases and paying bills.

Otherwise, long lines at check-cashing stores could stretch into the fall and pose dangers to public health.

“There’s now a health component to being unbanked — people are going to have to take literal risks with their health, in order to receive and then spend these dollars,” said Jonathan Mintz, CEO of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, which aims to get underserved Americans set up with affordable bank accounts.

The opportunity to attract customers with relief payments is not lost on check cashing and payday loan businesses, an $11.2 billion network of storefront locations in cities big and small.

In Brooklyn, B&H Check Cashing, in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Bushwick, posts its rates for cashing checks on a wall. A $1,200 check, for example, would cost $26.76 to cash.

Essence Gandy, 26, stood in a line of two dozen people that snaked outside a PLS Check Cashers in Brooklyn to cash in loose change at a Coinstar kiosk. Her checking account was closed months ago because she had insufficient funds and was unable to get back in good standing.

“I’ve got bills on top of bills,” said Gandy, who also has credit card debts and is behind on payments to a mattress store. She said she hopes to use the federal relief payment to catch up on bills and will likely cash the paper check at PLS.

A representative of PLS, which has 300 locations in 12 states, said it has been informing regular customers that stimulus checks can be cashed at their lowest rates.

As lockdowns ease, some countries report new infection peaks

ROME — While millions of people took advantage of easing coronavirus lockdowns to enjoy spring weather, some of the world’s most populous countries reported worrisome new peaks in infections Sunday, including India, which saw its biggest single-day jump yet.

Second in population only to China, India reported more than 2,600 new infections. In Russia, new cases exceeded 10,000 for the first time. The confirmed death toll in Britain climbed near that of Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak, even though the U.K. population is younger than Italy’s and Britain had more time to prepare before the pandemic hit.

The United States continues to see tens of thousands of new infections each day, with more than 1,400 additional deaths reported Saturday.

Health experts have warned of a potential second wave of infections unless testing is expanded dramatically once the lockdowns are relaxed. But pressure to reopen keeps building after the weeks-long shutdown of businesses worldwide plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s and wiped out millions of jobs.

China, which reported only two new cases, saw a surge in visitors to newly reopened tourist spots after domestic travel restrictions were loosened ahead of a five-day holiday that runs through Tuesday.

Nearly 1.7 million people visited Beijing parks on the first two days of the holiday, and Shanghai’s main tourist spots welcomed more than 1 million visitors, according to Chinese media. Many spots limited daily visitors to 30% of capacity.

On the eve of Italy’s first steps toward easing restrictions, the Health Ministry reported 174 COVID deaths in the 24-hour period ending Sunday evening — the lowest day-to-day number since the national lockdown began on March 10. Parks and public gardens were set to reopen on Monday.

In Spain, many ventured outside for the first time since the country’s lockdown began March 14, but social distancing rules remained in place. Masks are mandatory starting Monday on public transit.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to reveal how the country will lift its lockdown. The restrictions are due to last through Thursday, but with hundreds of deaths still being reported daily — twice as many recently as Italy or Spain — it’s unclear how the country can safely loosen the restrictions.

The 55-year-old Johnson, who spent three nights in intensive care while being treated for COVID-19, told The Sun newspaper that he knew his doctors were preparing for the worst.

“It was a tough old moment, I won’t deny it,’’ he said. “They had a strategy to deal with a ‘death of Stalin’-type scenario’’ if he succumbed to the virus.

Another potentially troubling sign emerged in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, where a third of the 500 people selected in random test came up positive for the virus.

In the U.S., New Jersey reopened state parks, though several had to turn people away after reaching a 50% limit in their parking lots. Margie Roebuck and her husband were among the first on the sand at Island Beach State Park.

“Forty-six days in the house was enough,” she said.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx expressed concern about protests by armed and mostly maskless crowds demanding an end to stay-at-home orders and a full reboot of the economy. President Donald Trump has encouraged people to “liberate” their states.

“It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather ... they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives,” she said. “So we need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent.”

If restrictions are lifted too soon, the virus could come back in “small waves in various places around the country,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Nothing has changed in the underlying dynamics of this virus,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would join with six others to create a regional supply chain for masks, gowns, ventilators, testing supplies and other equipment for fighting the disease.

“It will make us more competitive in the international marketplace, and I believe it will save taxpayers money,” Cuomo said.

Meanwhile, the divide in the United States between those who want lockdowns to end and those who want to move more cautiously extended to Congress.

The Republican-majority Senate will reopen Monday in Washington. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is staying shuttered. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to convene 100 senators gives Trump, a Republican, the imagery he wants of America getting back to work, despite the risks.

Elsewhere, Russia’s latest tally of infections was nearly double the new cases reported a week ago. More than half of Russia’s new cases were in Moscow, where concern is rising about whether the capital’s medical facilities will be overwhelmed.

Indian air force helicopters showered flower petals on hospitals in several cities to thank doctors, nurses and police at the forefront of the battle against the pandemic.

The country’s number of confirmed cases neared 40,000 as the population of 1.3 billion marked the 40th day of a nationwide lockdown. The official death toll reached 1,323.

And in Mexico City, where authorities expect infections to peak next week, workers will turn the Hernandez Rodriguez Formula 1 racecourse into a temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients. The paddocks and suites along the front straightaway will have eight hospital modules with 24 beds each. The pits will be used as offices for consultations.

The virus has infected 3.5 million people and killed more than 246,000 worldwide, including more than 66,000 dead in the United States, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.

All the numbers are considered to be undercounts, due to testing issues, the problems of counting deaths in a pandemic and deliberate concealment by some governments.