Rural America Needs Help to Weather COVID-19 Crisis
By Blake Hurst
I can remember when President Nixon embargoed agriculture exports. I was hanging out at Kretchmer’s Corner Cafe with my dad, after doing chores on a Saturday morning, and I can tell you that the local coffee drinkers were ticked. I can remember when President Carter began the Russian grain embargo. I can remember the inflation of the 1970’s and the high interest rates of the early 1980’s. In fact, the farm crisis of the 1980’s was the formative experience of my young farming career. I remember the stock market crash of 1987, which my wife Julie told me about late one fall afternoon, as I had spent that harvest day in a truck without a working radio. The dot.com crash and the Great Recession are vivid memories. But I don’t remember anything like this.
Missouri Farm Bureau has been working to take the recommended steps to protect our families, our customers, and our employees. We’ve also been thinking about ways that the federal government can help farmers and rural communities. Congress has begun the hard work of responding to the crisis, and it’s important that agriculture is a part of those discussions.
We’re going to need help for our farms and ranches. A third year of market facilitation payments will be necessary. We can advance payments for existing farm programs. Livestock markets are a mess, and we’re going to need resources for the USDA to address the volatility in those markets. A good way to stimulate rural economies is to speed up and increase funding for the repairs of the infrastructure damaged in last year’s flooding.
Colleges are teaching courses online, companies are asking workers to work from home, and public schools are closed. Rural Missouri lags behind in broadband access, and our students and people working remotely are suffering because of that lack of access. It’s not too late to take steps to improve it.
Lots of businesses besides agriculture are suffering and receiving attention in the media and Washington. As important as restaurants and airlines are to the economy, they pale in comparison to the importance of rural hospitals. Patients are postponing visits to outpatient clinics and therapy sessions because of concern about infection. That’s putting an already stressed system under extreme financial pressure. We can’t lose rural folks’ access to health care, and we can’t lose the skilled practitioners that provide that care. We have to act now.
The collapse in the oil markets is dragging ethanol down as well. It is hard to believe that a spat between Russia and Saudi Arabia is harming Missouri farmers, but that’s the situation we face. There was a recent court decision that will help stabilize this important rural industry. That decision should not be appealed by the Trump Administration, and instead should be implemented immediately.
Nothing is more important than continued operation of packing plants, milk and other processors, and the transportation of food from farm to the table. If regulations need to be loosened, if additional inspectors need to be hired, and if changes need to be made to ensure an adequate labor supply, we should begin to do those things immediately.
All of the shocks to our system that I listed, although different than the one we’re experiencing now, had one thing in common. We came back stronger than ever before. Some of them took years to recover from, some of them even put people out of business, but in the end we pulled through. This situation will probably be really hard on all of us and too hard on some of us, but if we act quickly and do the right things, there will be more of us still farming when we get through it.
Blake Hurst, a farmer from Westboro, Missouri, is President of Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.