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Seasonal Labor, Transportation, Financing, and Food Inflation (China) Among Outbreak Issues in U.S. and Abroad

Reuters writer Chris Walljasper reported on Tuesday that, “U.S. fruit and vegetable producers are bracing for dramatic disruptions to their labor force after the U.S. government said it was suspending visa interviews in Mexico to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

“The expected restrictions on migrant workers come as Americans strip grocery stores bare in preparation for potential orders to quarantine.

“Starting on Wednesday, new applications will not be processed for the H2A guest worker program and only returning seasonal workers will be allowed to enter the United States, growers said.”

Bloomberg writers Mike Dorning, Edward Ludlow, and Ainslie Chandler reported on Tuesday that, “Across the globe, governments are imposing travel limits in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The unintended consequence is a squeeze on migrant labor that’s a cornerstone of food production.

American produce growers preparing to harvest crops are warning of a devastating impact on fruit and vegetables after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced a halt to visa interviews for seasonal farm workers. Slaughterhouses also may face labor shortages.

The Bloomberg writers explained that, “While large grain and oilseed operations in the U.S. don’t rely as much on seasonal workers, many fruit and vegetable operators do. Leafy greens, berries and cucumbers are likely to be hit first by the loss of seasonal workers, [Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents U.S. growers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers] said. Tree fruit such as peaches, plums, nectarines and citrus would be affected heading into May and June, he said.”

PHOTO VIA The Wall Street Journal.

Dorning, Ludlow and Chandler added that, “The U.S. Embassy in Mexico posted a notice on its website announcing it was indefinitely halting visa interviews needed to process applications to come to the U.S., including for seasonal farm workers under the H-2A visa program.”

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture ‘is directly engaged with the State Department and working diligently to ensure minimal disruption in H2A visa applications during these uncertain times,’ the agency said in an emailed response. ‘This Administration is doing everything possible to maintain continuity of this critically important program.'”

And Wall Street Journal writers Alicia A. Caldwell and Michelle Hackman reported on Tuesday that, “The State Department said it would stop processing most visas for U.S. entry in its offices across Mexico, including visas for seasonal workers, visitors and people looking to immigrate, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Processing for nearly all visas will be suspended indefinitely to keep facilities clear for U.S. citizens in need of emergency services, the agency said in a statement published by the U.S. embassy and consulates in Mexico. The embassy said routine passport services for U.S. citizens also would be limited until further notice.

The disruption comes as farmers and other seasonal employers would normally look to increase hiring of foreign workers ahead of the busy spring and summer planting seasons.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg writer Josh Wingrove reported on Wednesday that, “President Donald Trump said the U.S. and Canada agreed to close the border between the two countries to non-essential traffic as coronavirus spreads.

“‘We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic,’ Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday. ‘Trade will not be affected.'”

Also this week,DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported that, “The American Farm Bureau Federation [AFBF] on Wednesday sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue highlighting some concerns the group has right now with the government response and areas where USDA should remain vigilant to keep supply chains open and markets fair.

“Noting that ‘Meatpacking plants, dairy processors, ethanol plants and other processing facilities all play vital roles in delivering the food and fuel Americans will continue to depend on in the long days ahead. Additional impacts could include access to seed, fertilizer and crop protection tools farmers need to grow a healthy crop.’

“AFBF also requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) emergency declaration to waive hours of service for food transportation also be expanded for the ‘full agricultural supply chain.'”

Mr. Clayton added that, “The National Pork Producers Council also asked for ‘clarity’ from DOT ‘that farms are part of the critical domestic infrastructure needed to produce the food that feeds America and the world. This clear designation ensures the uninterrupted supply of commercial feed and other production inputs to farms, as well as the transport of livestock from farm to market.'”

With respect to farm finances, Reuters writer P.J. Huffstutter reported on Wednesday that, “U.S. livestock producers are urging the Department of Agriculture to let them defer or adjust payments for government loans as the coronavirus hits the already struggling farm economy, the largest U.S. farmer trade group said.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation’s request was made in a March 17 letter outlining a wide swath of concerns, ranging from access to farm labor to supply chain worries of the fast-spreading virus. Many U.S. economic sectors have sought federal government relief.”

Ms. Huffstutter explained that, “April live cattle futures LCJ0 have dropped 12% this month on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and are down 25% since the start of the year.

Efforts to secure debt assistance for farmers have been growing this week, as the fast-spreading virus triggers emergency lockdowns and cash injections unseen since World War Two.

“Late Monday, the Farm Credit Administration (FCA) said lenders in the government-sponsored Farm Credit System (FCS) should begin working with agricultural borrowers, including possibly restructuring debt obligations, for those whose operations are being affected by the coronavirus.”

More broadly, Reuters writer Maximilian Heath reported on Tuesday that, “Argentina’s transport ministry released measures on Tuesday to clarify rules for grains ports amid a coronavirus pandemic and help normalize activity that has been hit by delays after the country closed its borders to contain the virus.

“The move comes after the disruptions at ports in the world’s number one exporter of soy oil and meal, which is also the third largest seller of corn and unprocessed soybeans.”

The article noted that, “The port issue is occurring at a time of relatively low activity in Argentina with farmers just starting to harvest corn, while the soybean harvest starts in the coming weeks.”

A separate Reuters News article this week reported that, “Brazilian pork and poultry processors have no plans to cut production or place workers on paid leave in response to the coronavirus crisis, meat producer association ABPA said on Tuesday.”

And Financial Times writer Sun Yu reported this week that, “Chinese farmers face a daunting planting season as they grapple with a shortage of labour, seed and fertiliser in the wake of a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus.

“A Qufu Normal University survey last month of village officials in 1,636 counties found that 60 per cent of respondents were pessimistic or very pessimistic about the planting season.

“The dismal mood has raised fears of a food shortage in the world’s most populous nation after disease control measures, led by traffic restrictions, took a toll on farming activity.”

The FT article stated that, “Analysts said a sharp fall in agricultural output, especially of grain, risked exacerbating food inflation, which hit a 12-year high of 21.9 per cent in February. That would present a political challenge to the ruling Communist party, which has already been accused of covering up the epidemic.

“‘Chinese people may grumble when pork prices double,’ said a Beijing-based scholar, ‘but they will rise up against the party if rice prices take off.'”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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