By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Alabama’s 33,000-member agriculture workforce continues to operate as essential, but the coronavirus has impacted how much some will get paid for their work.
“Crops still have to get in the ground, cattle have to be doctored,” Brady Ragland, a commodity director for Alabama Farmers Federation, told Alabama Daily News. “Those activities have to go on.”
Some agriculture enterprises — like farmers markets and cattle auctions — have shifted online where possible because of the coronavirus. But even before the pandemic, farmers were bracing for a tough year.
“Farm income is expected to be considerably lower,” Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Rick Pate said last week. “Commodity prices including cotton, corn, milk and live cattle have fallen significantly. The coronavirus outbreak has affected commodity prices across the board and is likely to do so for several months.”
Cotton prices have fallen 25% since early February, Pate said. Live cattle are off 16%. Milk and corn prices are down 11%.
“Even though demand from consumers is up for some agriculture products, prices remain low,” Pate said.
Pate said the $2 trillion CARES Act approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump late last month should provide some relief to Alabama farmers. The USDA was issued $9.5 billion in emergency COVID-19 response funding to support impacted farmers, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems and livestock producers, Pate said. Additionally, there will be a replenishing to the Commodity Credit Corporation’s borrowing authority by $14 billion, which will give the USDA resources to continue 2018 Farm Bill programs and other USDA programs uninterrupted.
Low prices have Alabama row crop farmers making decisions now about what and how much they’ll plant, Ragland said. Cattle farmers who had planned to sell in late April now have to decide if they’ll “take what they can get” or keep feeding their animals and hope for a better price later.
Meanwhile, farm families are impacted by coronavirus-forced closures, including schools, just like anyone else, Ragland said.
“It’s a little harder to ride in a tractor with a 5 year old for several hours,” he said.
Asked if overseas agriculture trade will be impacted, Pate said he participates in weekly COVID-19 conference calls with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“Phase one of the China trade deal has begun to happen and that will help,” Pate said about January agreement that China would import more U.S. goods, including agricultural products. Alabama groups in January praised the agreement as a better deal for local farmers.
Because of the coronavirus, several countries have closed their borders and that has had some impact as well, Pate said.
He praised Perdue’s effort to keep “trade at the forefront with minimal disruption.”
Pate said some farmers who sell directly to consumers have changed their practices. The Market at Pepper Place, a farmers market in Birmingham, is now having venders make online, pre-paid sales and orders are brought directly to customers’ cars to maintain social distancing.
“This is a great example of farmers adjusting their normal practices to provide fresh produce to their customers during the outbreak,” Pate said.
Farmers markets are “essential” under the recent stay-at-home order and the department has available vouchers for its Senior Market Nutrition Program. This program provides vouchers to low-income seniors to purchase fresh produce at farmers markets. Each qualified senior receives $30 of vouchers, they are issued on a first come first served basis. Applications are available at http://fma.alabama.gov/seniornutrition/.
No shortages in the pipeline
Pate and Ragland both said there is no shortage of food and the empty shelves and meat cases at grocers recently are a result of demand, not a problem with the supply chain.
Because dine-in restaurants, hotels, universities and schools — places that normally feed a lot of people everyday — have closed, all that consumer demand now falls on stores.
“What you’re seeing is a shift in logistics,” Ragland said.
Pate said there is no need to hoard food.
“I know sometimes consumers may feel there is a shortage when they see some empty shelves at grocery stores, but that is being created by increased demand and not any restriction in supply,” Pate said. “I have told several groups that our food supply is safe and sustainable for next week, next month and next year unless something unforeseeable were to happen.
“Please buy only what you and your family need so there can be a surplus for your neighbor.”