Food security isn’t something many thought about prior to COVID-19. But that’s changed.
“Empty grocery store shelves in Brookings or Sioux Falls speak to the fragility of even this sophisticated food system we are so proud of,” explained Barry Dunn, President of the state’s land grant, South Dakota State University.
During a March 31 interview, Dunn went on to say he was very concerned about what would happen to food security if COVID-19 infected a processing plant’s workforce. “As great as we perceive the food system in America, if the virus were to get into a packing plant, we would truly see how fragile the system could become.”
Sadly, this prophetic statement became reality. Within days of a few employees testing positive, Smithfield Foods, a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, was forced to shutdown. As of April 15, 518 of the 3,700 employees tested positive for the virus and infected another 126 community members.
“People come first. We must take care of the people involved in our food system if we are going to maintain food security for this country,” says Doug Sombke, president of South Dakota Farmers Union and a fourth-generation family farmer. “The current system is more focused on packers’ lining their pockets than caring for the people responsible for getting the food to the table – farmers, ranchers and packing plant employees.”
Sombke says Smithfield Foods should have done more to protect their employees. “Instead of paying employees a $500 bonus to work the month of April, they should have invested those dollars in protective measures.”
And he says more needs to be done to protect the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers raising crops and livestock. “COVID-19 is accelerating what was already a very depressed farm gate market,” says Sombke, who leads one of the state’s largest family farm and ranch organizations, 19,000 members strong. “Our family farmers and ranchers are going into the fifth year of a financial crisis, driven by the 2015 repeal of country of origin labeling (COOL), a trade war and lack of anti-trust oversight resulting in price gouging.”
Going into 2020, many of South Dakota’s nearly 14,000 cattle producers weren’t anticipating profits. Many were simply hoping to break even. Then, COVID hit, and as of April 9, an Oklahoma State University study shows cow/calf producers began losing an estimated $247 per head. Overall, the total beef cattle industry experienced a loss of $13.6 billion.
“What consumers need to understand is, in order for farmers and ranchers to do what we do – raise food – we need to be able to stay in business,” explains Keldron cattle rancher, Danni Beer.
Protecting farmers and ranchers during COVID is a focus of South Dakota’s Congressional leadership. “I think a really good example of why we have to protect our own producers is what is going on in pharmaceutical industry,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “We have lost a lot of our pharmaceutical production capabilities. We’ve sent them overseas to places like China. And now, we are finding out that is not necessarily a good thing. And now, as they manipulate the pharmaceutical supplies and we have a tough time getting them, you can see about what would happen if we lose our ability to produce our own food in this country.”
Rounds, together with Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson were among a bipartisan group who came together to ensure cattle producers were included in the CARES Act. “Because of COVID-19, we have seen a lot of disruptions to the food environment and it is making so many of us appreciate the hard work that our ag producers are doing on the farm and on the ranch every single day of the year,” Johnson said.
On April 16, Johnson and Thune led a bipartisan letter urging U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to take immediate action to assist pork producers and maintain the pork food supply chain.
The path forward after COVID-19 is not clear. But Sombke would like to see support for a more localized processing system to bolster marketplace competition and overall food security. “We need to get away from the lowest-cost production system. Not only for the survival of American farmers and ranchers but for security of food for our entire nation.”