Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) President Craig Hill recently completed listening sessions with county Farm Bureau leaders to discuss the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on agriculture and how the organization can help address members’ needs during this difficult time. Last week, the Spokesman visited with Hill about those listening sessions and about how the state organization is working to address members’ concerns.

Q) Why was it important to you to hold the listening sessions with county Farm Bureau leaders?
When the COVID-19 event hit in March, my strongest motivation was to sit down face-to-face with county leaders across the state to hear their concerns and the conditions they were facing. However, with the need to abide by CDC distancing guidelines,  our best alternative was a series of district conference calls, which we held over a period of several weeks. In all, 105 county leaders provided input through the listening sessions, so we were able to get input from a wide range of county leaders.

Q) What were the key issues you heard from county Farm Bureau leaders?
The number one concern was around livestock. We discussed the sharp price declines in hog and cattle bids and the fact that some producers, as the result of processors being slowed or shutting down, were not even getting bids on their market-ready animals. 

A second major concern was the biofuels industry. With ethanol facilities also being closed or slowed down, there were drastically reduced bids for corn. With about 60% of the Iowa corn harvest delivered to ethanol facilities, it’s a big concern.

There were concerns raised about a reduction in the supply of dried distillers grains for livestock feed as biofuel production slows. We listened to a wide range of stress over our community hospitals and schools, including a potential concern about an impact on property taxpayers from a reduction in county road use tax funds.

Those were only a few of the challenges we discussed.

We have shared those concerns in our frequent discussions with congressional and state leaders to help mitigate the challenges identified by county leaders.

Q) You noted that livestock farmers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Have payments through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) been enough to help livestock farmers survive this difficult time?
Every individual farm is un­­ique, so there is a varying degree of hardship and economic damage to our different  commodity producers related to the COVID-19 event. But I would tell you that dollars from the CFAP did provide a very needed cushion and a confidence to farmers, and to their lenders. It assured producers of some income to fill that cash gap they were facing. The payments will certainly not make up for all of the losses, particularly those  suffered by livestock farmers from the pandemic, but they will help.

Our county leaders have noted that they expect the crisis to be long-term with lingering effects for many months to come.  

Q: Many farmers have had concerns about price discrepancies in the beef industry during the pandemic. Why is it important for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate and address those concerns?
With boxed beef prices setting record highs, farmers witnessed a greater than 30% reduction in fed cattle prices. This violated our sense of fairness, and it violated our sense of reasonableness. We saw questionable business practices and unfair compensation, particularly to beef producers, but also all other livestock as well. 

Coupled with the economic concerns, the difficulty in even getting bids for livestock was just unbearable for many producers. Because of that, we think it’s important that USDA dig into this and find out why it happened, determine if there were market manipulations and, most importantly, figure out how we can prevent this  in the future.

Q) Another federal assistan­ce program, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), has been difficult for farmers to access. While Congress has made changes in the program, are there other improvements needed to make the program work better for farmers?
The pandemic hit at a time when we had record farm debt and repayment ability al­­ready strained. The PPP program could have been a good tool to provide needed assistance to farms. 

But so far, that hasn’t worked for very many farmers. We continue work through the American Farm Bureau Federation and our congressional delegation to make changes to the programs to increase its accessibility to farmers. 

Q) As you noted, a big concern of county leaders was the economic health of biofuels. Do Farm Bureau members believe that biofuel makers should be included in any additional relief programs?
The biofuel industry had al­­ready been strained by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decisions to grant refinery waivers that destroyed biofuel demand. The pandemic has also been a very tough blow to biofuel plants. Iowa leads the nation in biofuels production and besides buying corn and soybeans, people who operate those plants are members of our community and are big contributors to our rural economy. So we believe that there should be some type of program to help biofuels.

Q) The pandemic has been tough on farmers’ mental health and has added a lot of stress on farm families. What has Iowa Farm Bureau done to help farm families find resources during this difficult time?
Farmers are accustomed to risk, but the impacts of COVID-19 and ongoing market volatility have amplified stress for farm families. To help during this stressful time, the Iowa Farm Bureau has launched a special page on our website to help members find the resources to cope with stress. 

We also partnered with Iowa State University’s Larry Tranel, a pastoral psychologist who has spent more than 30 years working with farm families, on a three-part podcast series on ways to deal with farm stress. Both of those can be found on our website

Communication is key in a crisis like this, and it’s critical that the Farm Bureau family looks after one another.