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How the COVID-19 pandemic is sending American agriculture into chaos

COVID-19 is disrupting agriculture on many levels. The Trump administration recently announced it will spend $19 billion to help farmers. But they aren’t the only group in need of support -- undocumented immigrants are roughly half of American farmworkers, and they have been excluded from the federal aid. Stephanie Sy reports and talks to agriculture reporter Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID-19 is disrupting the farming industry on many levels. The Trump administration recently announced that it will spend $19 billion to help farmers.

    But, as Stephanie Sy reports, they aren't the only ones who need help.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The cows still have to be milked, but dairy farmers are dumping millions of gallons of their output.

    Endless acres of lettuce remain unpicked at the peak of the spring harvest..

  • Jack Vessey:

    It is very difficult, not just for me on the economic side, but emotional side as well.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And tractors are destroying crops, plowing them back into the ground.

  • Man:

    You can see all these beautiful beans on these plants that were scheduled to go to the restaurant industry.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The closure of restaurants and schools has shut down the food service industry, forcing farmers to make difficult decisions.

    But if there's so much food, why are grocery store freezers so empty? Repackaging and rerouting supply is an involved process, says Dave Puglia, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association.

  • Dave Puglia:

    If you think about a grocery store, you're going to see something on the shelf that's packaged for you, as a consumer. You go to a restaurant, they're buying in bulk. So we can't, unfortunately, flip that infrastructure over all that quickly.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And what about donating the food to charitable food organizations, so desperately in demand right now? Food banks only have so much storage, and getting the surplus to them also costs money.

  • Dave Puglia:

    That farmer has to decide whether to spend the money to harvest it, which is the most expensive part of farming in the produce industry.

    So, if you already know you're taking on a 100 percent loss, do you want to make it 160 percent by harvesting a product that doesn't have a profitable home?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Meanwhile, the livestock industry is facing other problems. Meat processing plants around the country have suspended operations due to outbreaks, including one of the nation's largest pork plants in South Dakota.

    The Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls had hundreds of employees test positive for COVID-19, and at least one has died. In rural Georgia and Iowa, the virus has claimed the lives of six employees of Tyson Foods, and other Tyson plants have dozens of cases.

    And in Greeley, Colorado the JBS beef plant has temporarily closed after at least four workers died of the virus. One of them was Saul Sanchez, whose daughter and co-workers accuse the plant of not taking precautions soon enough.

  • Beatriz Sanchez Rangel:

    Now they have everything. Now they're spacing them. Now they're putting pictures everywhere. But it's too late. I mean, it's not too late for those employees, but it's too late for my dad.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The plant closures may be necessary to ensure worker safety, but they also mean farmers are running out of places to take their livestock, and the potential for a meat shortage looms.

    Thom Petersen is Minnesota's agriculture commissioner.

  • Thom Petersen:

    It's been really vast. I mean, it's really affecting just about every sector of agriculture right now.

    Pork is probably hit the hardest, but also egg farmers, our ethanol farmers, beef. It's really across the board. And it's going to get worse, probably, before it gets better.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That may also hold true for farmworkers.

  • Manuel Bruno (through translator):

    We work in the fields, and then we have to put in extra effort to get the work done, so that families have food in their homes. If there are no workers doing this, there won't be food in the stores.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the COVID-19 pandemic, they're considered by the government essential workers, but many are working without essential benefits.

  • Bernardita (through translator):

    I have to work to pay the rent, the bills. These things don't wait for you.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Like many other farmworkers, if Bernardita falls sick or stops working, she doesn't have a safety net. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about half of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants.

  • Bernardita (through translator):

    I don't have papers. I don't have the same benefits as someone who has papers.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Eva Galvez is the daughter of farmworkers from Mexico and works at a community health center outside Portland, Oregon.

    Tell me what your greatest concerns are when it comes to farmworkers' health and COVID, 19.

  • Eva Galvez:

    You have got families living together. So it makes social distancing hard. We know that, oftentimes, they are traveling to work in a truck, and they're all piling up together.

    And it's really hard to do social distancing there. Even things — something as simple as washing your hands off can be really difficult if your handwashing station is far from your station.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And farmworkers that spoke to the "NewsHour" said they weren't getting adequate information.

  • Salvador (through translator):

    They have never spoken to us about the virus. Everything we know, the care we take, the precautions, we know thanks to the news, what we watch on television, on social networks.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That's only part of what leaves these workers more vulnerable, says Armando Elenes Secretary Treasurer of the United Farm Workers.

  • Armando Elenes:

    The stimulus bill excluded workers that are undocumented, so they can't collect unemployment. The additional $600 a week that other people are getting, they can't get that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Some farmers do have protections in place.

    Jim Cochran is the owner of Swanton Berry Farms in Davenport, California, a union grower with 25 workers, who have benefits.

  • Jim Cochran:

    You know, I don't want anybody who's sick working at the farm. A way to assure that is to pay their wages during any time that they might be sick.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But even farmworkers under a union contract are concerned.

  • Veronica (through translator):

    What would happen if one of my colleagues got sick with this virus? The company would automatically close. They would send us home. What are we going to do without getting paid?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In California, there may be some temporary relief, after Governor Gavin Newsom announced $75 million in state funding for undocumented workers. From the crop pickers to farm owners, COVID-19 is taking its toll.

  • Thom Petersen:

    We have had five years of down prices. We have had farmers that I know personally take their own lives. We have had a lot of farmers with really high stress.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Pressures on U.S. farmers were compounded in recent years by the Trump administration's trade war with China. Bankruptcies for family farms shot up 20 percent last year.

  • Thom Petersen:

    And so I just ask people to keep farmers in their thoughts as we go into this as well.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The pandemic is making the already risky farming business even more unpredictable, not only for the people that make up the farming industry, but for the nation's food supply.

    Part of the Trump administration's plan to bail out farmers includes the government buying $3 billion to buy some of that produce that we have seen wasted on farms. And they're trying to find ways to distribute it to food banks.

    Joining me now to discuss how the epidemic is affecting the business of farmers, we're joined by Amy Mayer from Ames, Iowa. Amy is the agriculture reporter for Iowa Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.

    Amy, you have covered deadly disease outbreaks among farm animals such as avian flu. And farmers always seem to have to adapt. How is this pandemic different?

  • Amy Mayer:

    There's a couple of ways, I think, that it's different.

    For one thing, with a livestock disease outbreak, that is something that really impacts farmers first, and the rest of the public may find out about it after they have been dealing with it for sometime. And other people may not really feel it has a direct impact on their lives.

    With this one, obviously, the entire country was affected pretty much all at the same time. And so, in that sense, farmers are right alongside of the rest of the population.

    The other thing that is important is there are certain types of challenges that farmers can anticipate and they insure themselves against, such as a severe weather event and, to some extent, livestock diseases.

    Clearly, this is something that nobody saw coming, nobody had any kind of preparation for.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I want to talk about what is happening at the meat processing plants.

    When it comes to those COVID-19 clusters, Amy, are companies (AUDIO GAP) responsibility at all, and are they doing anything differently now?

  • Amy Mayer:

    We're seeing a little bit of variation among the different companies.

    We have heard that, in some cases, temperatures are taken as workers enter the building each day. Some of the companies may have given masks or face shields to employees, although, in other cases, it seems that's been up to employees to provide for themselves.

    We're getting scattered reports of Plexiglas dividers going up in between the different stations on the line. Those are something that wouldn't normally be there.

    But there have not been specific required guidelines from any federal agency or even many of the state and local agencies about what the companies could or should be doing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, clearly, a lot of employees are now being sent home. And these meat processing plants, some of them are having to suspend operations.

    Should consumers expect meat shortages to result from this?

  • Amy Mayer:

    Right now, what we have been hearing is that there won't actually be shortages of meat in the big picture.

    What consumers may start to see is that the cuts of meat, the types of meat that are available at their grocery stores may be a little different than what they have been used to, or may not get refilled into those cases at the grocery store as quickly as they have become accustomed to.

    It's important also to remember that restaurants and other institutions that serve food have been shut down. And that happened before we started seeing the problems with the processing plants. That's meant a lot of the meat that you talked about being redistributed to food banks may ultimately also be able to be repackaged and redistributed and become available, where supermarkets might have some cuts that normally would just be at fine dining establishments.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio and Harvest Public Media, joining us from Ames, Iowa.

    Amy, thank you so much.

  • Amy Mayer:

    Thanks for having me.

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