Legislative Column for Oct. 8, 2020

Recently, I had an opportunity to hear Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn speak at the Webster County Farm Bureau Annual Meeting. You’ll rarely find a more enthusiastic champion for Missouri agriculture. A fifth-generation Missouri farmer, Chinn and her husband operate a 1,600-sow hog facility and feed mill in Shelby County. The family also raises cattle, corn and soybeans. She’s no stranger to the Farm Bureau, having served on the board of the American Farm Bureau Federation and once chaired the organization’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.

In her remarks, Chinn covered a lot of ground but her conclusion hit the nail squarely on the head: “Agriculture matters,” she said. Agriculture matters to rural communities and it matters to city folk, as well.

Director Chinn shared a few statistics that are likely familiar to anyone who lives or works on a Missouri farm. Farming and food production contribute more than $88 billion to the state’s economy. More than 400,000 Missourians are employed farm to table. More than 160,000 residents of our state identify themselves as farmers, and Missouri is home to more than 100,000 farms – second only to Texas – with 97% of those being family-owned.

More remarkable to me, was the information Director Chinn shared about the effects COVID-19 has had on agriculture, and all the ways the Missouri Department of Agriculture has responded. The coronavirus had an immediate and devastating (though temporary) impact on the nation’s food supply chain. Stay-at-home orders idled transport trucks and prompted runs on milk and other staples at grocery stores. Prices rose on pork and beef. Meat processing facilities struggled to protect workers from the spread of the virus.

Missouri’s food production industry took a serious hit – as much as $850 million, according to one study by the University of Missouri. It fell to the Missouri Department of Agriculture to help guide agricultural producers and food suppliers through these unprecedented times. I believe all of us gathered at the Farm Bureau meeting sat in rapt attention as Director Chinn described the steps taken.

The department responded to the challenges of the pandemic on many fronts. While the health and safety of consumers was never compromised, the agency reduced regulatory burdens when possible. It suspended surprise inspection visits, eased weight limits on trucks and relaxed hours-of-service rules. The department worked with the governor’s office and other state agencies to ensure food industry workers had all the personal protective equipment they needed. Following U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidelines, food and ag-production were deemed part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

When grocers imposed purchase limits in response to news reports of milk dumping in other states, the department reached out to stores with assurance: Missouri dairymen could meet the demand. Going further, the department’s staff worked individually with grocers to find milk to sell. As large interstate processing plants shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the department expanded the state meat inspection program, doubling the amount of red meat available for sale exclusively within Missouri’s borders. To combat market disruptions, while also ensuring unemployed Missourians had food on their tables, the department coordinated the transfer of more than 40,000 pounds of pork to local food banks.

Much of this effort was in cooperation with federal authorities. The USDA provided more than a half billion dollars in direct aid to producers through its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The Missouri Legislature approved a $20 million effort to assist small meat processors in Missouri, with funding through the federal CARES Act.  Missouri also benefits from a $50 million federal grant to expand broadband access in rural areas. This effort will not only better connect farmers to markets, but shore up the information technology backbone for schools, hospitals and rural residents.

Throughout it all, Missouri agriculture rose to the challenges of COVID-19. Our farmers persevered. Our food processors adapted. Our grocers and restaurants found ways to continue to serve customers, in spite of the pandemic. Probably the greatest symbol of the resilience of Missouri’s agricultural industry came in August, as the Missouri State Fair was held as scheduled. You could hear the pride in Director Chinn’s voice as she described the 2020 State Fair as a “huge success.” I think everyone listening was glad to hear 4-H and FFA entries actually increased this year, but more impressive was the show of determination from Missouri’s farmers to overcome the obstacles presented by the virus.

The harvest is underway in Missouri right now. The crops are coming in. I hope we’ll all take a moment to marvel at the sight of the combines in the field and appreciate all that agriculture provides. Director Chinn couldn’t be more right. Agriculture matters.

It is my great honor to represent the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District. Although the Legislature has adjourned for 2020, I remain your senator throughout the year. If there’s anything that I can do to assist you, please feel free to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.

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Author: Editor
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