The Wallace Building reflects the state capitol in Des Moines

The Wallace Building reflects the state capitol in Des Moines. 

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig is doing what so many other government employees are doing right now. He’s trying to keep the lights on and his employees safe while still serving the public.

“There’s no playbook for what is happening,” Naig says. “We’re all trying to figure out what to do.”

The biggest piece of the puzzle for Naig as he deals with the COVID-19 situation is trying to keep his own employees safe. Some of them were already based in locations around the state, and for them there may not be big changes. Others who did work in the main office in Des Moines are now working from home. And many have changed ways they interact with the public.

Some offices are closed to the public, and a farmer wishing to meet with someone must make an appointment. Some inspection schedules have been altered, with a priority being put on inspections related to food or agricultural production and processing.

Naig says educating the public is also important. Part of that is reminding farmers and rural residents to take the proper precautions. Use social distancing. Don’t hold public gatherings. Be safe.

“We are going to get a crop in the ground,” he says. “Planting will be largely unaffected by COVID-19. Weather will be the dominant factor that it always is. Just be smart and limit your exposure.”

But part of the education is letting the public know the situation regarding food has changed. Restaurants and food service facilities have largely closed. More food is being channeled through grocery stores instead of other outlets. Food banks and food pantries are seeing plenty of demand.

And food supply chains are being disrupted. Two examples of that are the low oil prices which have led to the closures of some ethanol production facilities, and the worker disease issues that have led to the closure of some animal slaughter and meat packaging facilities.

The state’s inspectors are trying to deal with those situations. With less food going to food service and more to the supermarket, there are issues with packaging and labeling.

The state is trying to deal with those issues in ways that allow food products to get to the public as quickly and as safely as possible. Companies are being forced to change labeling and packing procedures, and the government is trying to accommodate them. Some items, such as liquid eggs, are almost always marketed to food service customers.

Finally, the state may eventually be hit with a budget crunch as the impact on the overall economy is felt and tax revenues likely fall, Naig said. Lawmakers recessed for a month, and no budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 has been approved yet.

But Naig says the good news is the Iowa government budget was good going into this pandemic, and he is confident lawmakers will find a way to deal with the situation.

“We will recover at some point and we will shift gears,” he says. “We’re just anxious to get past this and get to that place.”

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.