Farmers, ranchers now eligible for disaster assistance loans from SBA

The Durango Herald
April 25, 2020

By Emily Hayes

Workers in the agricultural industry are now able to apply for disaster assistance loans under the Small Business Administration, creating another safety net for farmers and ranchers in Southwest Colorado as prices for cattle and milk plummet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also disbursed $19 billion to a program that will specifically assist farmers and ranchers through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, called the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

The USDA will use $3 billion of the funding to purchase excess beef and produce and donate it to food banks to support those who can’t afford to buy food during the economic shutdown.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a phone interview that the USDA is trying to disburse the funding by the end of April or early May.

Taylor Szilagyi, director of policy communications at the Colorado Farm Bureau, said it is important for agriculture workers and organizations to advocate for funding over the next couple of weeks.

“Historically, a lot of funding goes east of the Mississippi River,” Szilagyi said in a phone interview. But this is “an incredibly important move and gesture from the federal government,” she said.

Ranchers in Southwest Colorado have new calves, and they will be looking for new markets to sell their beef. But trading partners in Asian markets will hopefully be opening back up, Szilagyi said.

“The uncertainty is so hard,” Szilagyi said.

The announcement of support for the industry comes shortly after meatpacking facilities like JBS were forced to close temporarily. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed that at least 102 JBS employees tested positive for COVID-19, and four have died.

Facility workers operating in close proximity to one another are fearful about their health and have criticized JBS management for not taking the precautions necessary to protect them during the pandemic.

Gov. Jared Polis said the situation at the massive meatpacking plant will affect national food security, as well as the state’s farmers and cattle ranchers.

Sheep ranchers such as former state Sen. J. Paul Brown are preparing to shear their sheep and sell lambs in May. China is usually one of the biggest buyers of American wool, but the trade war between the two countries has caused problems for the market, Brown said.

On top of that, sheep ranchers are losing $100 per lamb, originally worth $225 each. The COVID-19 pandemic hit right before the Easter holiday, when sheep ranchers sell most of their lambs. Ranchers were left with only half of the profit they normally make. And Brown said ranchers may not understand the full scope of their losses until the fall.

But some ranchers and farmers in Southwest Colorado say they are reluctant to rely on support from the Paycheck Protection Program, and aren’t sure where they fit into the picture if they were to receive support.

“The USDA is trying to figure out a way to keep us in business, but I don’t think there’s enough money anywhere to do this,” Brown said.

Outside Colorado, meatpacking plants are shutting down across the country, interrupting the food supply chain and causing retail shortages of beef and other food items produced by places like Southwest Colorado.

“It’s really serious,” Brown said. “We need to put people back to work in the U.S. so they have money in their pockets.”

But public health officials worry that opening the economy too quickly will cause the COVID-19 curve to rise upward exponentially.

Local officials are now balancing public health and the economy, as well as the food supply chain in the U.S.

Szilagyi said continuing processing is going to be key to continue feeding Americans during the pandemic.

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