Reynolds: COVID-19 impact on farmers, producers has been ‘devastating’

A shortage of meat processing capacity is forcing producers to resort to enthanizing animals, state officials say. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Iowa’s meatpacking plants are operating at only 80 percent of capacity and livestock producers are facing the “emotional” prospect of euthanizing animals, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig reported Thursday.

“Iowa led the nation in taking corrective and proactive measures to protect our state’s critical infrastructure and essential workforce,” Reynolds said. “We understood the potential impact to our nation’s food supply, our state’s economy and our farmers. Still, short-term closures and reduced production capacity occurred and have had a significant impact on our producers.”

She cited estimates from Iowa State University economists that the state’s pork industry has lost more than $2 billion; the beef industry, $700 million; corn, nearly $800 million; and soybeans, more than $200 million.

She said the U.S. pork industry has lost about 25% of its processing capacity due to COVID-19. That creates a backlog of about 600,000 pigs in Iowa that should have gone to market. “This is devastating for Iowa farmers and producers and it will be felt at all levels. Consumers are already seeing it at the grocery stores with higher prices of meats and limits on how much they can buy,” Reynolds said. That disproportionately affects lower-income Iowans, she noted.

Naig said while some meatpacking plants have had temporary shutdowns down to COVID-19 breakouts, nearly all have “significantly reduced their processing capacity” due to workers testing positive.

Outbreaks are continuing. Iowa Department of Public Health reported Thursday that 555 workers at the Tyson plant in Storm Lake have tested positive.

Naig said the low point for processing capacity occurred the first week of May, but by mid-May about 600,000 pigs were backed up. “This challenge will only continue to build until processing capacity is back to full strength,” Naig said. Capacity improves each day and is currently up to about 80%, he said.

That falls far short of the prediction Reynolds and President Trump made in the Oval Office on May 6.  Reynolds predicted meatpackers would be operating at full capacity by May 16, if not sooner.

Gov. Kim Reynolds meets with President Trump at the White House on May 6, 2020.

Reynolds said at the time that the response from government, including Trump’s order aimed at keeping meatpacking plants open through the Defense Production Act, “I think has really maybe prevented what could have been really a serious situation.”

She was optimistic at the time that Iowa was “going to hopefully prevent what could have been, you know, a really sorry situation where we were euthanizing some of our protein supply and really impacting the food supply not only across the country but throughout the world.”

Naig said that while meat producers are looking at every option to avoid it, they “are already and will continue to have to look at the very difficult and emotional decision to euthanize their animals to prevent animal welfare issues,” he said.

Reynolds and Naig announced the state would make $24 million available to Iowa livestock producers who have to dispose of animals. The money comes through the federal CARES Act. The first of three rounds of applications will close Friday.

Several other federal assistance programs are available to farmers through the CARES Act. More information and applications are available at local Farm Service Agency offices.