|Agriculture gets ‘essential’ designation from the DHS
|By Rachel Lane
Washington, DC — The Department of Homeland Security has declared agriculture is “essential.” This is important wording. As many states, counties and even towns declare emergencies and shut down businesses, the key to who is allowed to work is coming down to that word “essential.” Essential workers are generally not affected by work and travel bans.
This means those in the agricultural industry can work to the best of their ability and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The agriculture supply chain, from farmers to grocery store stockers are critical employees according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security.
“Our food system is absolutely critical right now in keeping Americans fed, calm and healthy,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson. “As we have heard from farmers and from food companies, we have enough food. The important part now is protecting and supporting the people that grow, raise, distribute and sell that food so supply can continue.”
Specifically, DHS recognized as essential the following:
• Food manufacturer employees and their supplier employees—to include those employed in food processing (packers, meat processing, cheese plants, milk plants, produce, etc.) facilities; livestock, poultry, seafood slaughter facilities; pet and animal feed processing facilities; human food facilities producing by-products for animal food; beverage production facilities; and the production of food packaging
• Farm workers to include those employed in animal food, feed, and ingredient production, packaging, and distribution; manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of veterinary drugs; truck delivery and transport; farm and fishery labor needed to produce our food supply domestically.
• Animal agriculture workers including those employed in veterinary health; manufacturing and distribution of animal medical materials, animal vaccines, animal drugs, feed ingredients, feed, and bedding, etc.; transportation of live animals, animal medical materials; transportation of deceased animals for disposal; raising of animals for food; animal production operations; slaughter and packing plants and associated regulatory and government workforce.
Equipment manufacturers are also lobbying to be included on that list. The Association of Equipment Manufactures (AEM), Associated Equipment Distributors (AED) and the Equipment Dealers Association (EDA) are asking government officials to designate equipment manufacturers, suppliers and dealers and service technicians as essential of the economic continuity of the states as they continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Companies that supply that equipment and perform the needed service and maintenance on the machinery are essential to ensure vital infrastructure projects are able to continue uninterrupted.” said Brian P. McGuire, President and CEO of AED.
While the designation of “essential” is good news for farmers, there are still many challenges. The cattle markets and corn markets have seen a decrease in prices. Farm labor, already hard to find, may become more difficult.
The United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) sent a letter to the USDA asking for immediate assistance.
“You are well aware of the vast commodity crashes across the board as markets react to the Coronavirus and its impact on everyday life… Since January of this year, the live cattle futures have lost nearly a quarter of their value,” the letter, addressed to Sonny Perdue, reads. “Cattle producers and agriculture lenders are feeling the pressure and USCA fears additional fallout could occur as the U.S. takes the proper risk management protocols to control the spread of the current pandemic.”
The USCA asks Perdue to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to provide funds and programs to help cattle producers and feeders experiencing price losses.
“This is a unique market disruption and we trust that you and your staff will present a customized, timely and effective program for the U.S. cattle industry,” the letter continues.
Keeping processing facilities operating is a primary concern. The USCA asks that protocols be put in place to not immediately shut down if an employee tests positive for Covid-19. In addition, even if the full USDA staff cannot be there to monitor, self-regulation should be trusted in the short-term.
The corn industry has already been impacted by the closure of ethanol plants and a weakened demand in the livestock sector. “While this situation is no doubt impacting our daily lives and personal interactions, it has also created much uncertainty for our industry,” said the National Corn Growers Association, NCGA, in a statement.
The NCGA has setup a task force to make recommendations on recovery efforts and facilitate coordination along the value chain. The Board of Directors commissioned an economic analysis to evaluate how best to move forward on behalf of corn growers.
“We’re in unchartered territory here, the economic impacts across all industries are likely to be massive and we encourage you to be patient as we come together to get through this challenging time,” the statement concludes.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, AFBF, requested the USDA allow farmers to defer or adjust payments for government loans. The request was made on March 17, via letter.
Additionally, the lack of broadband internet in many rural communities is impacting farm families, said RJ Karney, AFBF Congressional Relations Director. Many schools are shut down and students aren’t able to attend classes online or access the information needed for homework. Fewer primary care physicians are open and broadband is needed to put people in rural communities in touch with healthcare providers.
“Farmers and ranchers remain committed to doing the work in the fields, orchards and barns across the country to ensure Americans have access to healthy, affordable food,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “We commend the good work being done to protect families and our population and appreciate all the workers focused on ensuring food gets from our farms to grocery stores, and of course we are grateful for the health care workers ensuring we can treat those who are ill and contain the pandemic.”
He said the decision to halt visa application processing in Mexico will restrict the number of immigrant workers during planting season. It threatens the ability of farmers to put food on American’s tables.
Duvall said the AFBF is in contact with staff at the USDA and the White House. He has asked for a safe, practical way to admit farm workers as emergency workers while still protecting public health.
“Failing to do so will impact our ability to provide a healthy, affordable domestic food supply,” he said. “We will remain watchful and vigilant to ensure U.S. agriculture and others in the food supply chain are able to continue feeding America, as we do 365 days a year.”