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Farmers wrestle with impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

OGLE COUNTY — After a tumultuous 2019, bad weather is now the least of area farmers’ concerns. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the agricultural supply chain. The prices of livestock and grain have dropped. Slaughter plants are closing because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Ethanol plants aren’t taking grain because of low oil prices. With restaurants closed, meat demand has changed.

“Last year was a nightmare with spring planting and unplanted acres and an unending harvest,” Ogle County Farm Bureau Manager Ron Kern said. “Hog guys were looking for a rebound this year, and it decimated their market. The cow market is torpedoed. Grain is bad due to ethanol.”

Ogle County is in the top 10 in the state in livestock production. Farmers like Keith Poole of Polo, who raises hogs and grain, are being forced to hold on to their animals because no one is buying them. 

In addition, trade and tariff issues over the past few years have hurt their income, leaving them without a cushion when the pandemic hit. 

Before the virus, a record number of hogs was being produced industry-wide, and so now Poole knows of people who are keeping three times as many pigs in a barn as they should.

Poole’s hogs, too, are backing up, but he still has options. 

“I can hold them longer or double stock in our other barn,” Poole said. “I could move them outside. “The worst-case scenario is euthanasia, but no farmer wants to start that. I think it might become necessary.

“There’s been a major supply chain disruption, and it’s frustrating for all the farmers in the county.”

Hormel’s Rochelle Foods plant is an example of that disruption. Meat is packaged at the plant, which had to be closed April 17 because of a COVID-19 outbreak. All of its nearly 900 employees had to be tested, and must quarantine at home for 2 weeks.

The industry also wasn’t prepared for the shift in demand that occurred when restaurants closed, Poole said. People are buying differently. Bacon, which once was a top commodity, now one of the lowest. 

A third of the corn Poole produces each year is sold to be turned into ethanol. Because there are plants in Rochelle, Lena and Monroe, Ogle County and the surrounding area is a major grain supplier, but now those plants are either closed or don’t want corn because they can’t make any money in a time when no one’s driving.

Last year’s bad weather hurt Poole’s corn crop, and he already was operating at half capacity before the pandemic. To offset some of his losses, he plans to work with a $19 billion USDA effort, the $19 billion the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which is working to buy up crops and make direct payments to farmers. 

Although farmers finally were allowed to apply for payroll protection through the federal CARES Act, that approval came late, and there wasn’t much money left in the fund by the time they applied, Kern said.

The USDA program will help, but won’t come close to offsetting losses, he said. 

“Nobody knows where the end of the tunnel is. You keep looking for a light. But we can’t see one right now.”

As for the planting season, the weather so far has been cooperative, and farmers have been able to get the resources they need to get started.

Farmers will keep plugging away despite the pandemic, and, like past difficulties, this, too, shall pass, said Poole, whose family has been farming now for more than 150 years.

“This industry has weathered a lot of stuff, and I’m sure we’ll weather this one. The sooner we can get everything back up and running is when this will start to be remedied.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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