Smith talks farm tour, impact of COVID on agriculture
Josh Ayers ~ Dexter Statesman
For nearly 40 years, the member of Congress representing Southeast Missouri's congressional district has toured area farms in the summer. It's a tradition that started under the late Bill Emerson and was carried on by Jo Ann Emerson and now Jason Smith.
I recently spoke with Congressman Smith by phone while he was enroute to Ripley County. Over the course of several weeks, he was scheduled to stop at farms in all 30 counties in the Eighth District.
Agriculture has had its fair share of attention during the Trump presidency. From USMCA (a replacement of NAFTA) to new trade deals with countries such as China, Smith is bullish on what this will mean for farmers.
The tours, Smith said, offer a "boots on the ground" opportunity to better understand the issues facing farmers.
"We've accomplished a lot of good things, like in the 2016 farm tour, all the different rules and regulations that came up," Smith said. "I actually brought them before the Trump transition team before he was ever in the White House, and literally more than half of the items that came up during that farm tour got reversed by the president."
Smith said one of the big issues this year is the impact of the $600/week federal unemployment bonus related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith's concern with the $600/week bonus is that between federal dollars and state unemployment, some individuals have received more on unemployment than if they worked.
Smith said the median income of a family of four in the Eighth District is $40,000/year. But under original federal/state combination of unemployment assistance, people were making $23/hour -- which translates to about $47,840 a year.
"Unemployment is there to help those who are displaced and don't have a job, but it shouldn't pay you more to be displaced and not to have a job than what you would have made working," Smith said.
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The congressman would have preferred a system where federal unemployment benefits were indexed by state, but because each state has a different formula he was told it would be too complicated to enact.
The president has expressed interest in coming to an agreement with Congress to legislatively extend federal spending in response to COVID, but Smith said Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have not been "good stewards of negotiations."
"They're trying to make this very political. They don't want to do anything that they could see that could help the president," Smith said, adding that they are holding up negotiations over bailouts to poorly run states such as New York, California and Illinois.
He noted that the original CARES funding legislation has almost half a trillion dollars yet to be utilized.
"It's crazy that they're trying to bail out big, big states, big cities and really not caring about the regular individual that's out there that could benefit from a stimulus check. Or could benefit from addressing unemployment properly," he said.
The new trade deal with China has been a hot topic on the farm tour. Smith pointed to Phase 1 of the agreement and the recent purchase of 1.76 million tons of corn by China.
"It's actually the largest purchase of corn by any country from the United States in the last three decades," he said. "So I'm glad that they're pushing forward. They've done that with soybeans, they're doing that with beef and poultry, but we got to keep their feet to the fire to make sure they do follow through."
Smith expects "a fairly large impact" on commodity prices because of the recent purchase.
"You don't purchase 1.76 million tons of corn and it not affect the prices. So it should be very beneficial for our farmers in time to come."
He said USMCA has also come up in his visits, including with some of the dairy farmers. But farmers are focused on China and making sure they fulfill Phase 1 of that trade deal.
He's heard concerns from cattlemen who are facing lower prices for their cattle. Meanwhile, consumers are paying higher prices for beef at grocery stores. He believes part of the problem lies with the big four meat packers, half of which he says are owned by Brazilians. Smith has called for investigations, believing they have manipulated markets.
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"All the folks keep saying we need to invest more in our local processors and also to have more competition with mid-sized processors," he said. "And, in fact, we're working on legislation from our office now to create a tax incentive so we can have more farmer, co-op meat processors, right here in Missouri, rather than, you know, sending our cattle and our poultry and our hogs to other states when we could do it right here. And that's some legislation we're working on."
Along with the disincentive to work because of the $600/week federal unemployment bonus, Smith said COVID-19 has caused issues with temporary workers, who would have normally arrived in March, not arriving until June or July.
"They're only allowed to stay a certain length of the time, and that's created some dynamics that I think has to be in consideration in regards to the utilization of these H-2A workers because of the COVID timetable and how it affected a lot of our farmers."
Fluctuation in prices, because of COVID, has been another concern. But Smith said there have been some operations that have been positively affected as a result of the virus.
"Because they have more products at farmer's markets and people are buying local rather than, you know, buying outside of their immediate area, that's affected a lot of folks in a positive way. But it's also had the reverse effect where some people have barely survived during this pandemic."
In the cities of Cape Girardeau and Jackson, we can be somewhat disconnected with the realities of agriculture production. But agriculture is the No. 1 industry in this congressional district, and the farm tour is an important look at the issues facing the industry from small, family-owned farms to larger operations.
Lucas Presson is assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian.
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