In two letters sent to US Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week, members of the House Agriculture Committee and the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research asked USDA to assist lamb and sheep producers impacted by the economic fallout from the pandemic, and to closely analyze the structure of the cattle market, which has also taken a significant hit since the coronavirus outbreak.
A third letter sent last week from the committee, asked USDA to do more to assist the specialty crop sector, which has received only a small fraction of the total aid provided to farmers through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
Closure of lamb packer threatens ranchers’ livelihoods
While concerns about employee safety at meat packing facilities ordered by the President to remain open during the pandemic have grabbed recent headlines, the impending closure of the second largest US lamb packer threatens the livelihoods of nearly 150 family lamb and sheep producers across 15 states.
Within days of the pandemic being declared in March, Mountain States Rosen filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy citing pressures related to COVID-19 and while it has continued to operate over the last five months it will soon cease harvesting and processing lambs – leaving those ranchers with whom it worked without a means to process their sheep, according to the House Agriculture Committee’s Aug. 5 letter to Perdue.
The closure removes upwards of 20% of the overall lamb processing capacity nationwide and “comes at a time when the sheep industry was already forecast to lose more than $350 million due to COVID-19 related market declines,” and when most feedlots are already at peak capacity for holding animals, the committee members note.
In light of these hardships, they ask USDA to help farmers and ranchers find alternative processing and marketing options by tapping existing authorities under the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act and the Marketing and Regulatory Programs and Rural Development mission.
Committee calls for investigation of cattle industry
Like the sheep industry, the cattle industry has “experienced unprecedented stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic” with everything from labor disruptions at meatpacking facilities and evaporating demand at the restaurant level to meat shortages, increased consumer prices and falling rancher prices, the House Agriculture Committee outlines in a second letter sent Aug. 7 to Perdue.
“This situation has led to questions arising regarding the vulnerability of the beef supply chain and the level of concentration in the industry,” which the committee notes in the letter prompted it to ask the Office of the Chief Economist to engage policy research centers to closely analyze the impact of the pandemic on the industry.
Specifically, it asks the OEC to address the structure of the industry, price discovery and methods, price reporting, purchasing mandates and barriers to entry in the packing sector. It also seeks historical data on how the sector’s current structure evolved and what are its advantages and disadvantages, whether the current capacity is enough for the industry to thrive, what the policy options to expand capacity or increase price discovery and whether those options would address concentration concerns and supply chain vulnerabilities.
“From a legislative perspective, we see this as an opportunity to fully examine and bolster the beef sector, ameliorating current concerns and ensuring food security for America’s future,” the committee writes.
Specialty crop farmers need ‘critical support’
The coronavirus’ impact extends beyond the meat sector and is also negatively impacting the specialty crop sector, which the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research argues in an Aug. 7 letter needs “critical support.”
Legislators note in the letter that only $270m of the $6.8b paid to stakeholders under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program has gone to the specialty crop industry.
“These funds have been particularly difficult to access for specialty crop farmers who are young, socially disadvantaged or rely on local markets with diversified production practices,” the legislators explain.
In addition, they note, access to the Farmers to Families Food Box Program ahs also been “difficult to access for limited resource specialty crop farmers who often struggle to obtain required food safety audits.”
To ameliorate these hardships and more equitably distribute funds and opportunities, the subcommittee asks USDA “to conduct immediate and targeted outreach to specialty crop stakeholders ahead of CFAP’s August 28, 2020 deadline,” and “commit to work with small- and medium-sized producers to ensure that all aspects of the CFAP initiative are accessible.”