Joni Ernst: Now more than ever, we must protect the safety of our workers and the integrity of our food supply.
Apr 28 2020
Growing up on my family’s hog, corn, and soybean farm in Southwest Iowa, I know firsthand the sense of pride our farmers have. These hardworking Iowans understand how important they are to our state, our country, and the world—and they should.
The diverse agriculture industries in Iowa quite literally feed and fuel the world, from pork and dairy to eggs and ethanol. Even during this coronavirus pandemic, we continue to rely on their hard work and commitment.
Now more than ever, it’s important we make sure they have the resources they need to get through this global pandemic, so that Iowans, and all Americans, can continue to have food on the grocery store shelves, in our food pantries and banks, and on our kitchen tables.
News of processing plant closures across the Midwest risks dramatically changing the condition of our food supply chain. In Iowa alone—Columbus Junction, Waterloo, Marshalltown, etc.—several of our meat processing plants have been forced to temporarily limit production or temporarily shut their doors.
Packing plants, and the entire ag industry, have long-faced labor challenges, and now the coronavirus-related plant closures have only made the problem worse. When a packing plant closes, it sends ripple effects through the supply chain.
For example, Iowa’s pork producers have a constant supply of pigs working their way up the chain. If the packing plant is no longer open for slaughter, farmers have to hold on to those pigs for longer, and that means our hog farmers are left with an excess supply of hogs that they’re not getting any money for.
Excess supply, coupled with decreased demand, has led to some farmers losing up to $40 per hog head. With a system designed for just-in-time delivery, plant closures have turned Iowa’s pork industry on its head, and now, our farmers will have no choice but to start euthanizing hogs —literally throwing out their livelihoods.
That’s devastating for not only our pork industry, but for all Americans. At the other end of the supply chain, there will be less meat going to the grocery stores and potentially higher prices for consumers.
We need to ensure the safety of our workers, and we also need these pork producers and plants functioning – not only for the sake of their families, but for our nation’s food supply as a whole.
In the Phase 3 relief package we passed in Congress, Senator Chuck Grassley and I fought for Iowa agriculture. This bipartisan package provided $14 billion to the Commodity Credit Corporation, increased support for food inspections, and added an additional $9.5 billion to the USDA to help our producers directly affected by COVID-19.
We gave USDA the ability to help: they can make purchases and design emergency payments. I’ve called on Secretary Perdue to quickly do so – and that goes not only for our pork producers, but for our dairy farmers, biofuels producers, and more. I also pushed the Small Business Administration to ensure that farmers have access to Economic Injury Disaster Loans, and, just last week, we got that fixed. We’ve now bolstered the funding for this loan program and made sure our ag community can access this critical lifeline.
Over the weekend, we saw USDA issue plans to establish a National Incident Coordination Center to provide direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures. They’ll be working with and assisting the state as producers potentially face the devastating reality of euthanizing their hogs. In addition, the CDC and OSHA issued recommended guidelines to help with worker safety at these processing plants. These are good and helpful steps, but there’s more assistance needed.
The administration must consider every tool it has to help ensure that our workers are safe and that our producers are able to reliably and safely get their products to market. Along with Senator Grassley, Governor Reynolds, and Secretary Naig, I’m urging the administration to utilize every authority available to keep plants open while maintaining important health measures, and to re-open closed facilities as soon as it is possible to do so safely.
Farmers need to be indemnified for their euthanized hogs, including costs associated with depopulation and environmentally sound disposal, to help preserve Iowa’s pork industry. There must also be an emphasis on mental health support. This is something I’ve worked on for years, and helped include in our recent Farm Bill, but there’s specific support that needs to be considered for our pork producers having to survive these hard times. From the farmer to the veterinarian and everyone involved in this overwhelming process, it takes an emotional toll.
I also strongly believe the White House should create an Office of Supply Chain. As seen by the issues I’ve outlined, this is complex and there are many folks impacted and involved. That’s why we need one person in charge of dealing with the supply chain issues – from getting testing and protective equipment out to processing plants to ensuring the chain stays strong from farm to table.
Lastly, it’s so important we reward our essential workers—like the hardworking Iowans in our packing plants—who have continued to go to work during this pandemic, putting themselves in harm’s way. I’m proposing we provide tax relief for these folks. Their work is essential and they deserve appreciation.
Now more than ever, we must protect both the safety of our workers and the integrity of our food supply – from farmer to processing plant to grocery shelf to kitchen table – using an all-hands-on deck approach. As I’ve said throughout this pandemic, it’s truly going to take everyone, from every level of government down to each individual Iowan, to do their part to defeat this invisible enemy. And I will continue making all Iowans’ voices heard as we fight this battle. Together, we can do this.
Joni Ernst, a native of Red Oak and a combat veteran, represents Iowa in the United States Senate.