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Montana Ag Network report for March 25

Posted at 11:57 AM, Mar 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-25 20:02:44-04

Here is the Montana Ag Network report for Wednesday, March 25, 2020:

#1 With a compromise finally reached on the Coronavirus Economic Recovery Package, an aid package that responds to market losses sparked by pandemic will also include help for livestock producers. The deal struck between Congress and the Trump administration would inject roughly $2 trillion into the U.S. economy.

For agriculture, a $14 billion replenishment to the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) and $9.5 billion for a new standalone US Department of Agriculture program that provides support for producers impacted by Coronavirus.

Sen. Steve Daines in an email wrote, “this includes Montana livestock producers, dairy producers, specialty crops, and producers that supply local food systems including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.”

Senator Jon Tester said in a news release: “In order to get through this crisis, Montana ag producers are going to need all the tools they can get their hands on to keep operations up and running, but as markets start to flounder, small-time producers are worried they won’t be able to stay open. This funding is aimed at helping folks who are supplying our local food systems—our farmers markets, restaurants, schools, and local grocers—and give our livestock producers much-needed relief. As this funding becomes available, I will be fighting to ensure that it makes it into the pockets of our family farmers and ranchers who have been tasked with keeping food on our tables throughout this crisis, not into the bank accounts of massive corporations.”

Daines added in a news release: “I was so glad to receive the news that our farmers and ranchers are going to receive this critical funding during the Coronavirus outbreak. Agriculture is what makes up our Montana way of life and it’s essential we support our ag folks during this critical time in our nation’s history.”

More details with specific language are expected this week.

#2 The U.S. State Department said late last week that it will keep processing visas for seasonal workers. That statement came shortly after an announcement that it would suspend routine visa services in most countries indefinitely.

The reversal came as lawmakers asked the administration to do whatever it could to keep seasonal workers available for U.S. agriculture. Farmers warned that suspending access to legal immigrant labor could threaten their livelihoods and the productivity of U.S. agriculture and limit the supply of fresh food items that are stocked in grocery store.

#3 There is still much uncertainty in the cattle markets in the wake of coronavirus. Across the country, livestock producers continue to voice their concern and frustration with profits made by meat packers during the pandemic. In addition to last fall’s Tyson plant fire in Kansas.

Some agriculture groups, like the Montana Farmers Union (MFU), are calling for a full investigation into the what they call price gauging.

“I think that investigating these packers is the right thing to do,” said MFU President Walter Schweitzer. “But that's going to take years to happen. We're living in an extraordinary time and our leaders are taking extraordinary measures that affect the private and business lives of every American citizen. I think it's time they take some extraordinary measures to protect us against corporate greed. Demand that the packers pay a fair price for their product. Demand the packers charge a fair price for their product. If the packers were just paying us what they should be paying us instead of taking advantage of us we wouldn't need a bailout.”

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is president of the National Association of Attorney Generals. This week he spoke on the phone with U.S. Attorney General William Barr. They discussed price gouging and consumer protection in the wake of the coronavirus. He also brought up the livestock markets.

“I wanted to relay to Attorney General Barr my concerns about allegations of price-fixing within the cattle market,” said Fox. “We talked very candidly about what some of the meat packers have been doing, not just recently, but over the course of time. What they really have as a monopoly with some of these larger meat packer companies that have 80% or more of the market. I was fortunate to have talked to Joe Goggins at the Public Auction Yards there in Billings, a friend of mine, and he gave me information. It was a good conversation and that attorney general bar seemed genuinely concerned about this.”

Attorney General fox said his office of Consumer Protections, Antitrust Division is also investigating last fall’s Tyson plant fire and the current market situation.