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USDA Aims To Help Connect Ailing Ag Industry And Food Banks, But May Be Too Late For Some

A curious Hereford cow says hello near Manhattan, Montana.
Madelyn Beck
A curious Hereford cow says hello near Manhattan, Montana.

Chris Descheemaeker ranches black angus, red angus cross with her family outside of Lewistown, Montana. The coronavirus pandemic, she says, comes after a few tough winters and an already tough market.

Click 'play' to hear the audio version of this story.

"We're at about 550 head, and we'd like to be at 600 because we're a family owned operation, and we want to keep our boys on the ranch with us and we need to expand to do that, which has been really hard to do in the last two years,” she says.

The pandemic has made things worse. Descheemaeker says her calves aren't due to be sold until the fall, and so that’s not a problem yet. But she says they will have to hang onto some cows.

"We still have 30 steers left that we'd like to get rid of that we're probably going to keep and run for yearlings, hoping that keeping them over will give us a better market than what we have right now for those, that weight of cattle,” she says.

Of course, that market depends on meatpacking plants, which are struggling with COVID-19 infections. Ranchers can't sell cattle if those cows can't get processed into the burger and cuts we buy at the store.

Descheemaeker says that while their established ranch can hang on in the short term, the future is uncertain. And new farmers have it worse.

"I know of one young, young beginning farmer/rancher that's just getting into the business that his sale was the first sale after the stay in place was put into place and he took a pretty big hard hit,” she says.

The federal government is trying to help farmers and ranchers like Descheemaeker. On April 17, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced $19 billion in relief through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

Of that, $16 billion is meant for direct payments to farmers, ranchers and producers. The other $3 million is earmarked to buy meat, dairy and other foods for hunger-relief groups like food banks.

But those checks aren't expected until late May at the earliest, and they're not going to be enough. As Perdue acknowledged on a recent press call, "We know that the disruption to markets and demand is significant, and these payments will only cover a portion of the impacts on farmers and ranchers."

The impacts have been huge. Producers have been dumping their livelihoods down the drain, from giving away mountains of potatoes to pig farmers aborting piglets because they’ve run out of room and money to care for their hogs.

Rick Naerebout is CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. He says there was a period of about 10 days where dairies were dumping milk in the state. Grocery store demand wasn’t enough to replace lost restaurant and service industry markets.

“The real underlying fact is people cook at home much different than how they eat out. And we’re seeing Americans consume less butter and cheese,” he says.

The aid package includes $2.9 billion for dairies, and the feds promised to spend about $100 million a month to buy dairy products to send to food banks. But Naerebout says, “That’s going to be too late for some folks...The end of May is going to be a tough period of time for them to be able to try and bridge the gap and be able to make it through that cashflow period.”

The federal aid package promised $5.1 billion in direct payments to cattle ranchers, more for them than any other profession. Descheemaeker says she's looking into that as well as the small business loan programs that are newly available to farm operations. However, she says there isn’t much information available yet.

"There's no sense in us jumping on a bandwagon until we know which wagon to jump on," she says. "Because there's a lot of different programs out there, but not everyone is going to qualify or every program is going to work for whatever operations."

Many of these programs are expected to be run through the Farm Service Agency offices. However, offices around the region have stated that no information is available yet.

As ranchers and farmers worry about keeping their operations profitable, food banks are worried about getting that meat, fresh food and other staples on their shelves.

Karen Vauk, head of the Idaho Foodbank, says grocery stores can't donate as much as they normally do because they have their own supply issues.

"Typically we'd be able to pick up food that was available for donation from the stores, and that represented about 35% of our total food distribution," Vauk says. "That food is down significantly – it's down 50 to 60%."

This comes as more people flock to food pantries amid soaring job losses. Vauk says they're trying to keep pace with that demand by purchasing meat and produce to send to pantries around much of the state, but they have limited cash flow.

"We, in fact, have made the largest purchase of food for the last couple of months in our history," she says. "We've never had to spend this much money on food purchase before. But you know, we got hungry people."

She says one county's food needs even tripled. The USDA's new aid program plans to bridge the gap between producers and food banks like this: they’ll pay for produce and work with distribution companies like Sysco to store and deliver food to organizations feeding the hungry.

Vauk is happy to hear that distributors will be part of the mix (they have limited cold storage) and she’s excited for more produce. Especially meat.

“That’s always been a challenging product for us to be able to source to the need,” she says.

There could be a problem with that, though. There will be extra cows and hogs for the government to buy, but backlogged meatpacking plants could cause shortages of finished products like beef and ham – even with the Trump administration's executive order to keep plants open.

For now, farmers and ranchers are waiting on more details from the program – and waiting for those first checks.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.
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