In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the USDA is ramping up two programs to assist farmers, ranchers and consumers. Last Saturday, President Trump announced that “Starting early next week, at my order, the USA will be purchasing, from our Farmers, Ranchers & Specialty Crop Growers, 3 Billion Dollars worth of Dairy, Meat & Produce for Food Lines & Kitchens. “FARMERS TO FAMILY FOOD BOX” Great news for all!” This program was first announced in late April, but details are still quite hazy about how all of the pieces will come together. According to the USDA, the agency will purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and cooked meat to be distributed to families in need. Participating farmers are required to box-up and deliver their own products to distributors and wholesalers, who will in turn, send per-approved boxes of these products to food banks, community and faith based organizations and other non-profits who pass them along to people in need. USDA purchases will amount to about $300 million per month allocated at $100 million each of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat.
An American Farm Bureau Federation study points out that consumer spending for food at grocery stores increased 27%, since the end of March, while food purchased at restaurants declined 25%. This switch in where food is consumed could impact farmers in the Four Corners Region who depend on sales to restaurants. However, Beth LaShell, Fort Lewis College, Old Fort at Hesperus Coordinator points out that demand for local agricultural products is robust. She expects that meat sales at the Old Fort Country Store and the Fort Lewis Farm Stand will be 50% higher than a year ago. But farmers who usually sell to restaurants are hedging their bets by ramping up direct sales to consumers through offering pickup opportunities and deliveries and planning sales at farmers markets. LaShell reports that some of the restaurants that have closed in Durango, have received loans through the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, so they’re continuing to pay their staff, while encouraging these furloughed workers to volunteer to help local farmers complete their spring field work.
Over the past few days, spring has sprung, and according to the National Weather Service, we can look forward to mild nights, and warm days for at least the next week. Here in the country, I know it’s spring, because irrigation sprinklers have come alive, a necessary evil for farmers in the Four Corners. I remember that an old farmer I met years ago told me, “This durn irrigation is like milkn’ cows. Oncen’t you start it, you can’t stop it till the water’s all gone.“
While a lot of us are hunkered down, practicing social distancing, and riding out the pandemic, farmers and ranchers are doing what they normally do in the spring, harrowing pastures, working ground, calving cattle and lambing ewes, planting crops, and getting ready start irrigation. Social distancing is normal for these folks, because they’re to busy chasing daylight getting ready for the eminent growing and grazing season to socialize very much.
When I started working with farm and ranch families in 1984, we were in the height of the 1980’s debt crisis. The way forward was pretty murky for many of them, who had listened to the “get big or get out” rhetoric spouted by, first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, and often repeated by university agricultural experts, agricultural lenders and popular farm publications. Decisions to farm more land, buy bigger equipment and borrow more money based on the inflated value of land that they or their families had owned for years pushed many of the families to the breaking point when crop prices plummeted and interest rates soared. Some were able to weather the storm, others moved on to different occupations, and tragic a few opted to not go on.
Colorado State Veterinarian Keith Roehr is repeating the message of state and national food producers that the coronavirus and resulting COVID-19 illness are NOT food-borne. The Colorado Beef Council has said it has learned that some anti-meat advocates are pointing at beef and animal food products as part of the problem. But Roehr points out that scientists believe that indirect exposure through external packaging or through other means of transmission is unlikely to be an important factor in the transmission of the disease, because the disease spreads mainly by human to human contact and aerosol particles from coughs and sneezes, so we should follow what health professionals are saying, “prevent the spread of the disease by covering our coughs and sneezes!”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued guidance on Thursday concerning the critical industry workforce that should continue as the country addresses and responds to the COVID-19 outbreak. U.S. food and agriculture was included among the 16 critical industries. The agency stated that if you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule. This directive indicates that farmers and ranchers and businesses that support them are included in this directive. However, Dr. James Lowe, College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Illinois, told participants of the Farmdoc Daily webinar, that COVID-19 needs everyone’s attention, because it much like many animal diseases, that are difficult to determine which animals are infected vs. which animals are carrying the disease that may be spreading it to other animals in the herd. As a result, the big challenge facing this pandemic is understanding case definition.
A recent Successful Farming magazine’s article caught my attention because it indicated that today, farmers are retiring in greater numbers than in the past decade. It pointed out that when profit margins are tight, more transitions occur, but the next generation isn’t eager take over operation of a farm because cash returns are declining. So in many instances, rather than following in mom and pop’s footsteps, the kids are more likely to want to sell the farm, because good Midwest farmland is selling for $10,000 or more per acre, which looks like a better deal for children to consider. However, some farmers are placing their farms in trusts so they can’t be sold, to protect a legacy that retiring parents worked to build through hard work and sacrifice throughout their lives. They aren’t about to see their children sell off everything.
Good morning. This is Bob Bragg. Welcome to the March 3rd edition of Farm News & Views
Drought conditions are intensifying in the western U.S.,with the Four Corners Region having the largest area of extreme drought. California’s snowpack is at 46% of normal, which is concerning because the Sierra Nevada mountains provide about one third of state’s water supply and when storms don’t come from California, the Four Corners Region is usually shot of snow. This is borne out by the latest SnoTel Report, which indicates that the Dolores, San Juan and Animas River watersheds are less about 90% of normal. However, snowfall during March often adds significant moisture, and the National Weather Service long range forecast indicates that there is some chance of more normal precipitation over the next 30 days both in California and the Four Corners Region.
Last week, Farmers for a Sustainable Future Coalition was launched by 21 U.S. farm groups with the intent of promoting environmental and economic sustainability. The coalition intends to serve as a primary resource for policymakers as they consider sustainability and climate policies important to agriculture. Some of the organizations that have founded Farmers for a Sustainable Future include American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Producers Council and 16 other organizations representing all of the major commodities produced in the U.S. Guiding principles of the organization call for policies that support science-based research, voluntary incentive-based conservation programs, investment in infrastructure, and solutions that ensure vibrant rural communities and a healthy planet. The organization points out that although farmers and ranchers have recently received criticism for their production practices from environmental activists, they have in reality already made great strides in moving toward sustainability. For example, no-till and conservation tillage is practiced on half of the country’s approximately 400 million acres of crop land, and farmers have enrolled 140 million acres of land into USDA conservation programs, and farmers are leaders in using geoexchange heating in their shops and livestock buildings, embraced solar energy for electricity and have installed windmills and methane digesters on many livestock operations.