R.F.D. NEWS & VIEWS: Small Business COVID Relief Program for farmers

By Tim Alexander for Chronicle Media

The Illinois Department of Labor is reminding Illinois motorists that though the roads are not as busy as during a normal springtime, farm implements are now on the move. (Photo by Tim Alexander)

With farmers in their fields and on the roads, it appears to be business as usual for the U.S. agriculture industry. But this is no ordinary year, and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic are many and mighty in regards to farming. Read on for updates on a few needles in the haystack of effects the virus is having on Illinois and U.S. farmers:


Frerich: Small Business Covid Relief Program for farmers

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Pork Producers issued a notice to members last week of the availability of near-zero rate loans to farmers, ranchers and producers under the Illinois Small Business COVID-19 Relief Program. Farm operators who claim less than 500 employees on their operations are eligible for loans under the $250 million program, Illinois State Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs announced last week. Frerichs said the state program is independent of any federal assistance programs related to the novel coronavirus.

“We can move faster than the federal government and its partners because we are not slowed by the partisanship that overshadows such efforts,” Frerichs said of the program for Illinois small businesses. “Part of ensuring the health and well-being of our residents includes making sure small-business owners stay solvent so their workers can be paid.”

The state treasurer’s office can facilitate these loans quickly via the Ag Invest linked deposit program (or others) which many Illinois farmers and ranchers already utilize for annual and long-term loans. Loans administered under the program are limited to a 4.75 percent interest rate and are intended to assist small businesses in providing bridge funding, paying fixed debt, payroll, accounts payable and other bills.

The Office of the Illinois State Treasurer website (www.illinoisstatetreasurer.gov) offers an active list of financial institutions with the Illinois Small Business COVID-19 Relief Program.


COVID-19 causing pork processing plant closures

SPRINGFIELD — Faced with plunging prices and decreased demand in some of its key markets due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. pork industry is now dealing with another threat: pork processing plants are closing due to worker absences caused by the virus. A Tyson pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, was the first to close, Farm Journal reported. Reportedly, the plant was forced to close its doors and disinfect the facility after more than two dozen workers fell ill.

When news of the closure got out, the hog markets reacted negatively to the concern that disruptions in the food chain would continue, noted market analyst Bob Utterback. “The talk is plants are only taking in their contracted hogs,” he said. “I cannot confirm how industry-wide this is, but suspect it’s valid for almost anyone in the business. It’s just like the ethanol plants that are shutting down because of the drop in fuel demand.”

The news got worse later in the week: Bloomberg Business news service reported a spike in the number of coronavirus cases at meat plants in the U.S., with hundreds of confirmed infections of workers in Colorado, Pennsylvania and South Dakota pork and beef processing plants. Two deaths were reported. Also reported: uproar among the workers supplying the country’s meat.

To encourage good cheer in these trying times, the Illinois Pork Producers Association and National Pork Producers Council are challenging producers to post pictures of their families eating bacon on Facebook to promote the fact that farmers are still working hard to restock grocery shelves.


Lowe: COVID-19 not affecting U.S. food animals

URBANA — The latest evidence supports what experts in zoonotic diseases believed: COVID-19 does not affect the food animals U.S. consumers purchase, including beef, pork and poultry. This is according to Dr. Jim Lowe, chief veterinarian for the Illinois State Fair and the University of Illinois Department of Veterinary Medicine.

“They’ve done enough work now, primarily in Europe and China, that it is clear that the virus doesn’t infect chickens, pigs and cattle,” Lowe said during an April 10 phone call. “It looks like our food animal species are not likely to be infected. There’s some strong evidence today that cats can be infected, and some evidence of dogs infected, but they can’t transmit the virus, only carry it for a bit. It doesn’t appear that cats get sick, or particularly sick, and it doesn’t appear that cats are transmitting it.”

From a farm animal standpoint, however, Lowe remains convinced that COVID-19 presents no threat. “That’s really good news. I don’t think we have to worry about the virus being circulated among food animal species,” he said, adding that animal transmission studies around the world are shedding new light on the virus nearly every day.


Mild week spurred increase in farm vehicle activity

SPRINGFIELD — Mild weather conditions across much of Illinois last week brought farmers into their fields and onto the roads. The warming spring weather means motorists will once again need to exercise caution around slow moving farm machinery, though on a lesser scale in 2020 due to the state’s stay-at-home mandate in response to the COVID-19 threat. Though a reduction in the number of overall traffic collisions in Illinois has been acknowledged by the Illinois Department of Transportation since Governor J.B. Pritzker initiated the stay-at-home order, the speed of cars involved in collisions and the severity of injuries have been increasing.

“Farmers are the backbone of our state’s economy, and I know how hard they work this time of year. But in the rush to get the 2020 crop in, we urge them to use caution while sharing the road,” said Michael Klenik, director of the Illinois Department of Labor. IDOL wants motorists to remember that farm vehicle operators have limited visibility to the rear, and to use caution when passing farm vehicles.


Illinois Farm Fact:

Tractor overturns, the leading cause of farm vehicle fatalities, are responsible for around 130 deaths per year. (OSHA)