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Alabama farmers, producers can now apply for federal aid

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama farmers who have suffered losses because of the coronavirus outbreak can now apply for aid through an up to $16 billion federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

The money is being administered by the Farm Service Agency and applications can be submitted through Aug. 28

A press release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, which is helping with applications, said the program specifically targets producers who have suffered a 5% or greater price decline, as well as losses, because of market supply chain disruptions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged many of our farmers into more difficult situations,” Jessica Kelton, an Extension Farm and Agribusiness Management team leader said in the written statement. “So many producers were already struggling after a dry year with an uncertain market. Now, there are a lot of producers with wasted products because of the market declines related to the pandemic.”

Ken Kelley, an Alabama Extension economist, said the aid comes at a time when many livestock and dairy producers are seeing prices well below 10-year averages, even as consumers see higher prices in grocery stores.

“There were significant supply chain and processing issues earlier in the spring,” Kelley said. “However, the U.S. was and is amid record production of beef, pork and poultry. The issue was not availability of animals, but the logistics of processing and movement.”

Kelley said it will be a while before processors catch back up to supply.

“In the meantime, the backlog of supply will continue to hold producer prices at lower levels,” Kelley said. “(The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program) will be a welcome assistance as producers work through the effects of COVID-19 on agricultural processors and markets.”

There is a payment limitation of $250,000 per person or entity for all commodities combined.

“Securing our nation’s food supply is critical, and unfortunately, the virus has dealt our farmers another blow when many were already having a tough time making ends meet,” Alabama Farmers Federation National Affairs Director Mitt Walker said in a statement earlier this month.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate on Tuesday told Alabama Daily News that most commodities in the state have been effected by COVID-19 and processing slowdowns. 

While the state has few dairy or pork producers remaining, he said beef production has taken a “tremendous hit,” despite higher prices in stores. 

“You’ve got four or five companies that control about 80% of the slaughterhouses, so when they started (seeing COVID-19-caused slowdowns) they had so many cattle in the supply chain, they just quit wanting to buy more, so prices have plummeted.”

Some ranchers have hung on to their beef animals, hoping for better prices later. Pate said the program provides some money to help ranchers continue to feed those animals.

The situation is different for poultry producers, Pate said, because it is usually the processing companies that own the birds.

“The processor is buying (the chickens) from themselves,” Pate said. “The chicken farmer, all he owns is the chicken houses and the labor, so they’re not overly concerned about what the price is … as long as the chicken is alive and growing, they do OK.”

Several Alabama chicken processing plants in the state have seen COVID-19 cases among employees and subsequent work slowdowns. Pate said his department recently received masks and other PPE equipment from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and delivered it to 14 poultry and two catfish plants for employees to wear when they’re not at work in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. Pate said plant employees often live and travel to work together.

Pate said the state’s poultry and catfish processors are currently working at about 90% capacity. 

“I brag on Alabama. We haven’t poured any milk out, we haven’t euthanized any animals … we haven’t plowed under any produce,” Pate said. “Our story is not necessarily the national story.” 

Pate said the situation for Alabama farmers will improve as restaurants and schools — places that buy meat and produce in bulk — reopen. 

Long-term, Pate said some small beef producers may get out of the businesses because of the price decline, but COVID-19 has shown that the U.S. is food secure.

“We might need China for vaccines and swabs and some of that other stuff, but we can feed ourselves next week, next year, five years from now, and hardly have to import anything. That’s not true of most nations.” 

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