Vice President Mike Pence praised farmers, meat packers and grocers for keeping food on the tables of Americans while the coronavirus has shut down most other facets of the U.S. economy.

“Everybody in the food chain from the farm to the grocery store has delivered for the American people,” Pence said last week during a roundtable at Hy-Vee headquarters in West Des Moines. 

“You’ve done a great job keeping food on the table in a crisis. It will probably be your finest moment … stepping up to serve others at some risk to yourself.”

The vice president was joined by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall along with representatives from Smithfield, Tyson, Hy-Vee and others to discuss the food supply situation.

COVID-19 has proven that the food chain is fragile, Grassley said. “It reminds me of an old saying that you’re only nine days away from rioting for food,” he said.

Meat shortages at grocery stores have prompted consumers to think about how food reaches their tables, Duvall said.

“I know we do have a new awareness across the country of what food means to us,” said Duvall, who raises cattle and poultry in Georgia. “We understand the frustration of the people when they go and find grocery store shelves empty. This is not a supply issue. It’s a supply chain issue."

Cattle and hog slaughter numbers have slumped to historically low levels as worker illnesses forced meat packing plants to slow or shut down production over the past several weeks. Duvall said it’s critical for packing plants put safety measures in place for their workers and resume full production as soon as possible.

“We’re not talking about 30 or 50%. We’ve got to have them back at full capacity because the pipeline is just backing up, and it gets messy when it’s backed up,” he said. “The whole system has been set up in a timely matter. Hogs and chickens particularly - they can’t be hanging around long after they get to that right size.”

Difficult decisions

The packing plant closures have forced some farmers to make the difficult decision to euthanize market-ready animals, Duvall noted. “It is just gut-wrenching to know you’ve spent all of your time caring for that animal and nobody is going to use it,” he said. 

The AFBF president also applauded the Trump administration’s decision to have the Justice Department investigate price disparities in livestock markets, which have seen wholesale and retail prices rise while animal prices plummet.

“The farmers and ranchers are coming unhinged when they see the difference in that price, because they are facing the loss of their farms. It is very difficult to explain,” Duvall said.

Grassley also voiced support for the price investigation, said he’s heard from several farmers who don’t understand why cattle prices are going down but the price at the grocery store is rising. “You just can’t appreciate enough the economic distress that comes from these low prices, but also the emotional distress that comes from it.” 

Farm provisions in the coronavirus relief package are helpful, but won’t cover the full extent of losses suffered by Iowa farmers, Reynolds added. She asked Pence to look at lifting the payment limits, especially for livestock farmers, as the administration considers another relief package.

Duvall also highlighted the plight of the biofuels industry. Crop farmers, he said, are facing a "triple whammy" of demand destruction from reduced demand to feed livestock, closed biofuel plants and slower-than expected exports to China.