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Keeping Missouri farmers and other agriculture workers healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic is of utmost importance, state government officials have said.
But the spread of the disease is also forcing other adaptations in the complex business of food and adding to challenges that already persisted from last year's destructive flooding.
Spring is planting season and the end of calving season for ranchers, so farmers need seed, fertilizer, feed and other supplies. The availability of those supplies depends on dealers, feed mills, truckers and others being able to deliver on time.
"We need every man and woman who works in agriculture and food production to be there, now more than ever," Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn said last week.
The Agriculture Department "is encouraging farmers, ranchers, workers in the entire food supply and those living in rural communities to avoid close contact with others, wash their hands frequently, clean and disinfect shared equipment and, most importantly, stay home if they are sick," department spokeswoman Sami Jo Freeman added.
Food and agriculture has been identified as a critical industry by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. To keep the stream of needed goods and labor flowing during the pandemic to support the industry, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services last week ordered local health authorities to not close or restrict the operations of businesses that are part of the food supply, "whether that be agricultural production, manufacturing, distribution or sale of food."
"This waiver shall not limit the authority of a local health authority from closing or restricting the operations of a retail food establishment," the order added.
If travel is restricted in an area in response to the pandemic, people within the food and agriculture industry traveling to and from places of work or on official business are encouraged to keep a copy of Homeland Security guidance, the DHSS order and a letter from their employer on hand.
The state has also relaxed other regulations, including encouraging trucks to carry increased loads of agricultural cargo.
"I think all those things have to be a concern," Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said of whether to anticipate challenges with shortages of fertilizer, pesticides or other materials for agriculture.
Hurst was optimistic there will not be slowdowns because of supply issues with the industry's critical status for national security. But he said deliveries must continue because local dealers do not have the storage to hold all of the products farmers need.
Missouri's Agriculture Department is "not aware of any limited supplies, but we are monitoring all parts of the food supply chain," Freeman said.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration also said this month, "There are no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases the inventory of certain foods at your grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock. Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the United States and no widespread disruptions have been reported in the supply chain."
Concerns about issues with the availability of migrant labor have also surfaced because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and all U.S. consulates in Mexico on March 18 suspended indefinitely all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services, though nonimmigrant visa applications were to continue to be accepted on a limited basis for emergency travel.
That threatened the important flow of farm workers coming into the U.S. on H-2A agricultural guest worker permits, though the Los Angeles Times has since reported Friday that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most foreign applicants will no longer need in-person interviews to obtain those permits.
Freeman added, "we are communicating any concerns (about the seasonal workforce) from producers to our federal partners. We are confident that, through the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of State will be increasing the number of applicants they are processing in time for spring despite the closure of some international offices."
Whatever may come, COVID-19 is already changing the food and agriculture industry. Whether consumers have changed what they're eating, the disease and measures to respond to it have definitely affected how and where people get their food, and that matters, including on the day-to-day level for at least some farmers.
"Food is processed in a different way for the restaurant trade than it is for grocery stores," Hurst said. Last year, more than half of the money spent by consumers on food was "spent away from home," he added.
Drive-thru may still be seeing close to normal traffic — maybe even more than usual — but with restaurants closed or limited to takeout, delivery or drive-thru, that means the industry has had to adjust to more consumers getting a larger share of their food from grocery stores, Hurst said.
"It will make a difference to farmers that are in the meat business, in particular chickens," because there are different sizes and kinds of chickens raised to end up on plates at restaurants than at home with grocery-bought fowl, he said.
He noted processing plants also have to change the cuts of meat for a grocery store consumer instead of for a restaurant.
"For producers who sold directly to restaurants, our Missouri Grown team is working with them on a case-by-case basis to provide assistance and advice where we can," Freeman said.
"We are encouraging anyone experiencing food chain disruption to (contact) our Agriculture Business Development Division, which is made up of the Missouri Grown and Domestic & International Marketing teams. They can be reached by calling 573-751-4211 or emailing [email protected]," she added.
Even as meat has been quickly snatched off some grocery store shelves by consumers, Hurst said, for some reason, the cattle commodity price has been going down.
COVID-19 has caused other unusual fluctuations in commodities. For one, "nobody's driving," so that means ethanol plants — which use corn to make the fuel — are closing. Hurst said "that demand is just on hold until the economy gets back to normal."
"Farmers are farmers, but they're also citizens in rural areas," facing rural health care challenges that already existed in addition to stress from the pandemic, he added.
In the background of all the disruptions caused or that may yet be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri farmers are still having to contend with the damaged levees not yet repaired after last year's extensive flooding across the state.
Farmers with land behind an unrepaired levee face higher than usual crop insurance rates — and that's if they've even decided to spend the money to clear fields of sand and other flood debris to plant crops when the Missouri or Mississippi rivers could rise again and undo all that work.
"The minute the levee gets repaired, if you have not planted, then your insurance rate drops back to the normal rate it would be behind the levee," Hurst said.
He said, "it's just going to be a timing game" and speculated farmers still waiting for levees to be repaired would try to wait as long as possible to plant and may shift to planting soybeans instead of other crops.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture's page on COVID-19 is available at agriculture.mo.gov/emergency/covid-19/.