The time has come for Congress to act if Wyoming and indeed America’s agriculture industry is to survive. Over the years there have been multiple bills sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans to address inequities in the national ag markets. Yet, none of these bills have ever made it to a president’s desk to be signed into law.
The coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on these inequities. The pandemic has disrupted the national food supply chain, led to closures at meat packing plants as workers fell sick and left Americans with the unsettling experience of grocery stores rationing milk, bread, flour, eggs and other commodities.
It has also wreaked incredible damage on Wyoming’s ranching families. The National Cattleman’s Beef Association estimates cattle industry losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will reach $13.6 billion. Loss of consumer demand and decline in slaughter lamb prices could cost lamb producers $125 million at the farm level, with a total impact to the U.S. lamb industry in excess of $300 million, according to the American Sheep Industry Association.
It is difficult to reconcile images of farmers euthanizing pigs in the Midwest and plowing produce under in the South with images of cars lined up at food banks or empty grocery store shelves as more Americans find themselves in need of help to get healthy food during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the problems are in the part of the food chain most consumers don’t normally see. Farmers who sell to big commercial clients are seeing contracts canceled for produce that they’ve already grown. As restaurants and institutions shut down, companies upstream in the food supply chain, such as dairy processing plants, have struggled to switch from bulk delivery for food service use into the retail grocery sector. Already meatpacking plants that process beef, pork and poultry have closed to deal with COVID-19 cases among employees, leading to a glut of animals that cannot be slaughtered and processed.
A USDA news release said the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program or CFAP will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, cattle, dairy, pork and sheep producers are eligible for assistance. Additionally, $3 billion is allocated to buy produce, meat and dairy products to be distributed to food banks, charities and community or faith-based organizations.
But the virus has also laid bare the disparity between live cattle prices and wholesale and retail beef prices. Many cattle producers have told Wyoming’s Congressional delegation and even President Trump via Twitter that they want a solution to the distressed market rather than a handout. And an online petition asking for a presidential executive order to implement mandatory country of origin labeling for beef gained about 10,000 signatures in about 12 hours.
There is still much that we do not know about how the state and nation economy will recover from this collapse. But for the ag industry to recover, there is an urgent need to address structural failures in agricultural markets that prevent ranchers and farmers from making a fair living. Specifically, there is the need for stronger fair market practices rules; investigations into price fixing by the Big Four; and mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).
We should demand to know where our food is raised and to be reassured that producers are being properly compensated for doing the lion’s share of feeding our country and the world.