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Farmers fear USDA's $19B in coronavirus aid won't 'scratch the surface'

By Jessie Higgins
Farmers fear USDA's $19B in coronavirus aid won't 'scratch the surface'
The livestock industry is facing a crisis as meat packing plant closures are making it difficult for ranchers to sell their animals. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 28 (UPI) -- As the federal government prepares to distribute an unprecedented $19 billion in aid to farmers struggling through the coronavirus pandemic, farm industry experts say it won't be enough.

"That $19 billion helps," said Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Minnesota. "But if things deteriorate further, that may not even scratch the surface for what people are going to need to get through this."

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The issue is especially severe among livestock producers, Westhoff said.

That sector is facing an immediate crisis because the widespread closure of meat packing plants because of outbreaks of the virus makes it impossible for many farmers to sell all their animals.

RELATED Farmers start to kill pigs they can't sell to slaughterhouses due to closures

"It's a mess," said Jim Petrik, a South Dakota rancher who raises cattle and hogs. "Almost all our local plants are out. It's going to be a bloodbath for producers."

Hog producers are losing money every day. The National Pork Producers Council on April 17 released a "conservative" estimate that hog farmers would lose a collective $5 billion in 2020.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allocated $1.6 billion in aid for the hog industry.

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RELATED Cattle industry losses expected to quickly outpace federal aid

The cattle and chicken industry also are in peril from the slaughterhouse closures. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has estimated that producers will lose some $13.6 billion, a far cry from the $5.1 billion they've been allocated in direct USDA aid.

With losses quickly outpacing the promised aid, the American Farm Bureau Federation has called the federal aid "an important down payment" to bolster the rapidly deteriorating farm industry.

"More help will be needed," the organization has said.

RELATED USDA to buy $3 billion worth of food from farmers for those in need

Other farming sectors also are in crisis, industry leaders say.

Both fresh produce growers and dairy farmers are reeling from the sudden loss of the food service industry market after governors across the country closed restaurants, schools and other institutions in an effort to slow the virus' spread.

Before the virus hit, roughly half of the money Americans spent on food was from food service, according to the USDA.

Prices for those goods have plummeted. Milk prices have fallen to around 12 cents per pound from nearly 18 cents in January, according to trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange,

But, as with the livestock industry, the price matters little as farmers across the country are struggling to sell their products.

Dairy farmers are dumping milk across the country, while fresh produce growers are tilling vegetables into the dirt and livestock producers are beginning to euthanize animals.

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"Congress and the Trump administration and the USDA are all doing exceptional things to support this industry," said Todd Van Hoose, the president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, an agricultural lending firm based in Washington, D.C.

"But we've never been here before. We're off the map. No one knows just how bad this is going to get."

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