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Outbreak Voices: Farmers Worry About Shortages, Bankruptcy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United States Department of Agriculture has earmarked $19 billion to help farmers during the coronavirus pandemic. But some farmers aren't seeing any money. And they are worried.

JOHN BOYD: Most of the monies that you hear USDA talk about are going to corporate farmers, but absolutely nothing is in place for small-scale farmers like myself. And I believe that we're heading for a food shortage.

SIMON: That's John Boyd Jr., who runs a 210-acre farm in Baskerville, Va. And across the country in Oregon's Hood River Valley...

MAIJA YASUI: We have a number of farmers who are already declaring bankruptcy.

SIMON: Maija Yasui and her husband grow cherries and pears. And they're trying to figure out who will help them harvest their fruit trees.

YASUI: Now with the COVID border closings, our workforce has been disrupted. About a third of our families are immigrants from Mexico or have family ties in Mexico. Many returned to Mexico just to visit their extended family over the winter months, when the snow is blanketing the orchard, and work is limited. Some of our families have been unable to return to their Valley home. We also have a new farm worker program, and it brings work crews in from Mexico, Ecuador, South America. Some of those crews have returned to their homeland. Cherries are a fresh crop that will come into market at the end of June and July. Are there going to be enough hands to pick the fruit, to sort and pack the fruit? We don't know.

MICHELLE BYRNES: We have recently laid off one of our full-time employees.

SIMON: Michelle Byrnes runs a family dairy farm with her husband in Dorchester, Iowa. She, her husband and their three sons have had to work even harder to keep their farm going. And that includes milking 150 cows.

BYRNES: Even if you're an hour late or two hours late, it starts to hurt the cow. They'll stand at the gate and bellow. We have some cows that produce up to 150 pounds of milk a day, so there just isn't the capacity to store all that milk. We did receive a letter from our creamery, our co-op that asked us to reduce some of our production. There just isn't the market. Obviously, the consumer is staying home more. And the consumption in our homes may have gone up, but it just wasn't enough to compensate for that overflow of milk that wasn't able to be sent to the restaurants and the schools. That's why you hear dairy farmers that have to dump their milk. I'm afraid there probably are a lot of dairy farms that won't be able to survive this. And that's a scary situation for all of us.

BOYD: Planting season is right now. So from May till about mid-June, any time after that, you just won't reap the benefits of maximum harvest.

SIMON: Back in Virginia, John Boyd needs to get his sweet potato, tomato and cabbage seeds in the ground now. Planting is expensive. He usually relies on credit to cover costs.

BOYD: There's a process that farmers have to do to prepare to plant. There has to be lime applied to the land. There has to be fertilizer applied to the land so that the crops produce. Tons of lime costs money. Fertilizer costs money. Diesel fuel costs money. Equipment, repairs costs money. All of these things are upfront costs. My local bank is closed because of the virus. And if farmers can't get loans, we can't plant our crops, which means either higher food prices for the American people or no food at all if you don't put your seeds in the ground on time.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNYHOOPLA'S "LOST CAUSE")

SIMON: That's John Boyd, a farmer from Baskerville, Va. We also heard from Maija Yasui in Mount Hood, Ore., and Michelle Byrnes in Dorchester, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNYHOOPLA'S "LOST CAUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.