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Farm News Headlines for 3/23/20

State Department will Keep Processing Seasonal Ag Worker Visas

The U.S. State Department said late last Thursday that it will keep processing visas for seasonal workers. That statement came shortly after an announcement that it would suspend routine visa services in most countries indefinitely. The Wall Street Journal says the reversal came as lawmakers asked the administration to do whatever it could to keep seasonal workers available for U.S. agriculture. Farmers warned that suspending access to immigrant labor, much of which comes from Mexico, could threaten their livelihoods and the productivity of U.S. agriculture. Seasonal labor makes up as much as ten percent of the workforce for farmers. And it isn’t just agriculture that needs foreign labor. Other industries that specifically rely on Mexican labor include fisheries and resorts. A State Department spokeswoman says they are well aware of the importance of the H-2 program to the economy and the food security of the United States. “We are reviewing all possible options,” she says. The state department initially decided to suspend routine visa processing in most countries worldwide in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Department officials have said the most likely approvals will come for returning workers who qualify to skip a visa interview.


Agriculture Among Nation’s Most Critical Industries

The Department of Homeland Security affirmed just how important agriculture is to the U.S., especially during a pandemic like the coronavirus outbreak. DHS says public health, law enforcement, food and agriculture, defense, and 12 other industries are “critical,” and should keep to their usual work schedules to help respond to the outbreak. The guidance from DHS is designed to help limit potential confusion as some state and local governments implement various curfews or bans on large gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Over 60 groups that represent the food, beverage and consumer packaged goods asked for uniform guidance on what businesses are exempt from those restrictions. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives applauded the move, saying, “As we face an unprecedented crisis, Americans will continue to be able to find nutritious food on store shelves.” It also provides much-needed reassurance for our farmers as planting season gets underway. A release from the NCFC says, “America’s co-ops and their farmer-owners stand ready to play their part in the nation’s food supply chain. As we’ve seen so many times in American history, our farmers and ranchers will rise to meet the challenge.”


Tyson says Meat Supply will be Restocked Soon

Grocery store shelves will soon be restocked with meat products in “another week or so.” Politico says that announcement comes from Tyson Foods CEO Noel White after a recent surge in demand for meat products. The U.S. has ample food supplies for those staying home under “social distancing” policies. White says Tyson has made changes to its processing facilities to increase supplies for grocery stores instead of restaurants. “Once we are able to replenish supplies, which is probably going to take another week or so, then I think we’ll be back in better equilibrium between supply and demand,” White says. Grocery stores’ meat orders were significantly higher than usual through last week after demand began to shift away from restaurants. Slaughterhouses are running at maximum capacity, even on weekends. The North American Meat Institute, which represents major meatpackers, says the industry is taking steps to keep operations running at normal or increased capacity. Companies are also enhancing benefits like paid sick leave and access to health care to treat or detect the virus. Some of the enhancements include waiving copays or deductibles.


NCBA Asks Capitol Hill about Help for Cattle Producers

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Vice President of Government Affairs Ethan Lane says NCBA has been working hard to help cattle producers through the challenges of COVID-19. “As the country reels both economically and emotionally from the spread of COVID-19,” Lane says, “we have worked hard to ensure that cattle producers remain able to focus on the national infrastructure priority of keeping high-quality beef available to consumers.” Lane also says meeting the challenge requires federal officials at the Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Interior, Treasury, and more to have a full understanding of how their product gets from the pasture to the plate, and his organization is happy to tell that story. He says COVID-19 has dealt a challenging hand to producers across the country. The resulting highly-volatile markets can’t be allowed to force America’s ranching families out of business just when consumers need them the most. “in order to combat this burden, NCBA has actively engaged leaders in the U.S. House and Senate to ensure that relief funds from any aid package reach these struggling cattle producers directly.” The NCBA says it’s important that any relief avoids the lasting market-altering effects of a price-support program, which some members of the Senate have advocated for.


Ethanol Industry Feeling the Strain of COVID-19

Many ethanol plants have cut their production over the last week, or they’ve entirely shut down as the coronavirus outbreak cuts into fuel consumption. Reuters says the drop in consumption at the pump has hit margins to refine the corn-based fuel hard. Renewable Fuels Association Chief Executive Geoff Cooper says he expects ethanol production to fall even further. He’s asking the Environmental Protection Agency to ease the strain on the industry by not granting any more of the small refinery waivers from the nation’s biofuels mandate. The coronavirus spread has disrupted business, travel, and daily life. Governments around the world are urging people to stay indoors to help limit the potential spread of the outbreak, which has put a big damper on fuel demand. Margins to produce ethanol have dropped considerably, causing plants to begin looking at a combination of shutdowns and layoffs. An ethanol refiner from Claremont, Minnesota, says they’re doing everything they can to make sure they’ll weather and survive the economic storm, “but it’s definitely going to be ugly.”


Thefts and Scams Targeting Cattle Producers are Rising

The COVID-19 outbreak has already hit the cattle markets hard. However, that’s not the only threat to ranchers’ livelihoods out there. Scott Williamson is Executive Director for Law Enforcement with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. He says thefts and scams targeting cattlemen are on the rise. “Economic and industry distress always increase the number of desperate people that will take fraudulent, dishonorable, and criminal actions,” he says. “You may feel like you need to be in a hurry to sell some cattle before it gets worse, or hurry to buy cattle while the prices are low. Slow down because con men and thieves are taking advantage of this situation.” It’s especially important to be careful when buying and selling over the internet. Williamson received a call from a cattleman that had purchased a truckload of cows represented as one thing, but when they arrived, the truckload was something else entirely. Unfortunately, the buyer had already wired the money. He says it’s important to verify the person you want to do business with is a trusted source. When selling, use something like an escrow service or online payment system. Never accept any check worth more than the sale’s value. Never issue payment until the items are received, unless you have complete trust in the seller.


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