Food and Fiber Should be Considered Part of the Nation’s Basic Infrastructure
By Amy Hendrickson
It’s a thing these days to explain things that happen with, “Well, its 2020.” That little catchphrase says it all, and everyone understands what it means. For the sheep industry, 2020 has been a shock. We started out the year experiencing a tremendous growth in demand for American lamb. By the end of March, prices hit lows not seen in some time, and they kept going down.
Sadly, for many producers in our industry, the economic situation is made worse because of poor wool and pelt markets. The downturn in the wool market, which began in early 2019 because of the China trade situation, accelerated to a crash with the COVID-19 shutdown orders.
These circumstances are particularly harmful to Wyoming wool producers whose wool quality has substantially improved. Instead of reaping the reward for improved quality, Wyoming ranchers are now stockpiling their wool or selling for much less than it is worth.
The most significant blow of course has been the loss of the second largest lamb processing plant. State and local COVID-19 shutdown orders forced the Mountain States Rosen (MSR) lamb plant into bankruptcy, and its subsequent sale has left lamb producers in Wyoming bewildered and worried about their ability to market their lambs this fall.
The closure of the MSR lamb plant has pushed our industry into an economic downturn, which some believe will be too much for sheep ranchers to overcome. With only one major lamb packing plant left at this time, it’s easy to see why people believe this. However, a lamb processing facility in Colorado is expected to come online very soon.
While this is a good thing, the plant may not be as beneficial as some hope. Its capacity is not able to match that of MSR, and there are not fabrication capabilities at the plant. Also, as a packer-owned facility, it will not provide the industry with additional transparency in price reporting.
Currently, mandatory price reporting for lamb is discontinued due to confidentiality concerns, leaving those who try to sell lambs with little knowledge or transparency in the prices they will receive, including pelt credits.
The recent news that the old Ranchers’ Lamb Plant in Texas has been purchased is positive, particularly if the plant can begin operations in the near future. This plant has fabrication capabilities, which allows it to meet customers’ needs directly. The challenge will be to regain and grow those American lamb markets once held by MSR, and which have most likely been filled with imported lamb.
Our governor and our state legislators have done the best they can to assist agriculture, including the sheep industry, with the economic blows COVID-19 has dealt us. Unfortunately, due to restrictions on the use of the money – we must show a coronavirus-related loss – many of our producers have not been able to benefit from these aid programs as yet.
Our congressional delegation has been terrific at the national level in their efforts to ensure the sheep industry has been included in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). The program as developed was not particularly helpful to Wyoming sheep producers, primarily due to age restrictions and eligibility dates.
Most of our ranchers don’t sell lambs in the beginning of the year and most don’t have lambs on the ground until after April 15, which meant they couldn’t take advantage of the relief payments. Fortunately, USDA changed the age restrictions so running age ewes could be included in inventory counts.
I believe our sheep industry is resilient, but I have no doubt this year will change the industry as we know it. The fact is, COVID-19 has shown a bright light on how existing public policy views agriculture in this country.
After the Great Depression and World War II, U.S. agriculture policy was simple – provide U.S. citizens with affordable food and fiber. It was believed the best way to ensure Americans had food was to ensure farmers and ranchers could grow, produce, process, manufacture and distribute its own food and fiber.
U.S. policy over the years has unfortunately moved away from this principle. It has rewarded consolidation, to the point that little, if any, competition exists anymore. While this may be a theoretical question to many, in the U.S. sheep industry today, it is a reality. Had adequate domestic food processing infrastructure existed, the impact from the removal of the MSR plant, although painful, would have been more easily absorbed.
Similarly, the lack of U.S. apparel and textile manufacturing capabilities (i.e., infrastructure), results in most of America’s wool being outsourced to foreign countries, most notably China, where it is processed and manufactured into apparel and textiles. Ironically, the finished items are often exported back into the U.S. for sale to the consumer.
It is time for a state and national policy discussion on our current understanding of what constitutes U.S. infrastructure. In addition to bridges, roads and highways, the capability to ensure the processing, manufacturing, fabrication and distribution of U.S. food and fiber to U.S. citizens should be considered a part of the nation’s basic infrastructure.
The governor’s recent announcement of the Meat Processing Expansion Grant Program and efforts to allow interstate sale of state-inspected meat are a good start. Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in Buffalo also plays an important role in stabilizing our industry.
I once heard an interview given by the Director of Agriculture in Missouri in which he gave the following statistic: four out of four people eat. The ability to feed our nation in times of crisis, such as what we have seen this year, is critical.
Our country has come to realize our dependence on foreign-sourced energy is a national security risk. Perhaps we should now consider what being dependent on a foreign supply of food could mean.
Amy Hendrickson is the executive director of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.