As this article goes to print, stay-home orders are being lifted in Mississippi, businesses are beginning to reopen, and things are starting to slowly go back to “normal,” certainly acknowledging that “normal” will look very differently than it did prior to COVID-19. For my federal affairs column, I would like to highlight the numerous advocacy efforts the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation launched on behalf of the entire Mississippi agricultural industry during the early phases of this pandemic.
My career with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation began roughly 15 years ago as a regional manager. I worked with producers at the local level and developed life-long relationships with some of the greatest people in the state. I truly miss those day-to-day interactions. In 2010, I assumed the role of National Affairs Coordinator – a role President Mike McCormick created to make sure your voice was better heard in Washington, more coordination was ongoing with our fellow state Farm Bureaus, and management of a federal political action committee (PAC) was implemented.
As I look back over the course of my short career with Farm Bureau, it has been rare to see all of agriculture struggle at the same time as we see today, primarily from the fallout caused by COVID-19. As difficult as this situation is, what inspires me is the resilience of our producers and their ability to continue to do their job, whether that be raising livestock or growing a crop, all in the face of constant challenge. That resilience keeps me motivated every day and challenges me to think outside the box, be proactive, and do everything we can for our members in this difficult time. Saying that, here are a few highlights of the efforts I and other Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation staff have worked on for our membership during this difficult time:
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the largest issues we faced and focused on revolved around labor. Because the United States went into a nation-wide lock down, it became a major issue for farm employers to get their annual seasonal guest workers into the country. Initially, all foreign consulates were shutting down visa processing due to federal recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At the national level, Farm Bureau quickly developed a plan to assist in these labor matters and presented it to United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. On behalf of the agricultural industry, Perdue engaged directly with the secretaries of the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to make sure policies and procedures remained in place for H-2A and H-B workers. Fortunately, Perdue was successful in addressing these issues with his counterparts as H-2A and H-2B workers were deemed “essential” and allowed to enter the United States. As a result, we have seen the large majority of guest workers arrive on Mississippi farms as planned.
Mississippi Farm Corps Program
Although most H-2A and H-2B guest workers were permitted to enter the country, we have still seen some shortages. At the same time, members of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve lost their full-time jobs due to COVID-19. In an effort to help both farmers and service members, United States Congressman Trent Kelly in partnership with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Mississippi State University Extension Service, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce and the Mississippi National Guard Association launched the Mississippi Farm Corps.
Mississippi Farm Corps matches members of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve who have lost their full-time employment status with job opportunities on farms in Mississippi. Farmers can post job opportunities on extension.msstate.edu/farmcorps, and service members can find job opportunities in their area. The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation is extremely proud to be a sponsor of this program, and truly appreciate Kelly for leading this effort.
The United States beef industry was one of the most impacted commodities in Mississippi during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the farm level, the beef market took a minimum 30% hit, causing producers to sell at a loss or hold cattle longer. Farm Bureau, along with the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, pushed Congress to provide cattle farmers with assistance in the CARES Act. Fortunately, Congress included an appropriation of $9.5 billion to the USDA for the livestock industry.
Once the CARES Act passed, advocacy efforts quickly switched gears to focus on USDA implementation and how that assistance would be provided to the industry. The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and Texas Farm Bureau led the effort to send a letter signed by 26 state Farm Bureaus to Perdue requesting he focus on the need to provide quick relief for the stocker and cow/calf operator. The letter also thanked Perdue for expanding the investigation of potential market manipulation during the initial outbreak of COVID-19.
In mid-April, USDA announced it was planning to allocate $5.2 billion to the beef industry. This aid was a good start to help struggling cattle farmers and set the stage for further conversations of what the industry may need in the future.
At the onset of COVID-19, the dairy industry immediately took a hit. With restaurants and schools closing, the consumption of dairy products decrease drastically. At the national level, Farm Bureau has been extremely active in advocating for the dairy industry. When the pandemic began, Farm Bureau was the first group to propose that a direct payment to all dairy farmers nationwide be included in the CARES Act. The dairy industry will receive a portion of the $9.5 billion Congress allocated to USDA for the livestock sector in the CARES Act.
Additionally, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall personally engaged many national retailers, like Wal-Mart and Publix to ensure their locations released all purchase limitations on fluid milk. In Mississippi, MFBF worked with Commissioner of Agriculture & Commerce Andy Gipson to launch an effort educating retail stores there was no need to implement purchase limitations on fluid milk, and initiate conversations with processors regarding the topic of dumped milk. Farm Bureau continues to be engaged in other conversations to help the struggling dairy industry.
Farm Bureau is in the process of developing a plan to assist the poultry industry, which did not receive any aid in the first version of the CARES Act. The plan will likely include some form of direct assistance to the grower, with possible adjustments in USDA guarantee loan programs.
Catfish & Sweet Potatoes
With the decline in both food retail sectors and other key markets, the sweet potato and catfish industries saw a major decline in market demand. Both industries asked Farm Bureau to support their requests to USDA for assistance in the Purchase Commodity Product Program. Farm Bureau worked closely with these industry associations to convey their message to Congress and the Trump Administration. Fortunately, funding allowing USDA to purchase these products as a part of the USDA Aid Package was included in the CARES Act.
The cotton, corn and soybean industries are no stranger to market declines, especially in the last two years with the China trade dispute. Fortunately, Congress took action to help row crop producers by allocating a $14 billion infusion into the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) allowing USDA to provide aid to these industries for the rest of the year.
While this level of assistance is nowhere near enough to cover the shortfalls caused by COVID-19, I can assure you, Farm Bureau will continue advocating for what the industry needs to bounce back, acknowledging that things look different no matter what after COVID-19.
Justin Ferguson is the Federal Affairs Coordinator at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.