Not my first disaster

Cattle on the Scott farm find a non-charred spot to rest March 7, 2017. A wildfire devestated the farmstead in northern Clark County the day prior. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

When the Starbuck fire blazed through Clark County, Kansas in 2017, our family had to make some tough decisions regarding the burned cows and calves. Many other ranchers in the same predicament shot cows who were burned, but still alive and buried them. Dead ones were buried too. All this was documented and provided to USDA for a disaster payment.

We chose to send the cull cows to a packer in Booker, Texas. Our hope was that way we could at least recoup some costs and rebuild. The ranchers who chose to go the USDA route ended up making more money than ours did. Ultimately because of issues within our family at the time, we didn’t think the USDA option was open to us. So we chose to have the cows slaughtered humanely. Eight of our calves had to be put down at the farm, so we weren’t reimbursed for them.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has all but broke the food supply chain, more specifically, the production chain. Packing plants are closing across the country, leaving market ready animals with no place to go. I'm seeing comments here and there about how the latest program from USDA is paying producers with market ready cattle and hogs to euthanize the animals and be paid a fraction of their worth. Producers' animals could be bought if they can’t find other arrangements to have the animals held at current weights or slaughtered elsewhere. 

I can't help but remember how it felt to load the burned cows on to my brother-in-laws trailer and watch them drive away. I can’t help but remember the feeling of my husband having to bury those month old calves in the pasture because their feet we’re burned so badly. I don't even want to imagine what these beef producers, feed yards, pork farmers and poultry producers are having to face. I'm not sure I could sleep at night if I had to make the choice to euthanize my livestock.

Someone on social media made the comparison of today's pandemic to the years of the great depression. Unfamiliar with it I had to go look it up for myself. One referenced the Jones-Connally Act, a New Deal Initiative passed by Congress in April 1934 as an extension to the Agriculture Adjustment Act.

According to Wikipedia: Largely in response to the great drought of 1933-1934, cattle ranchers acted against their former opposition to the commodification of cattle and appealed to the government for assistance in ridding of themselves of the millions of cattle they could no longer afford to feed or to keep alive without a loss on return.

The Jones-Connally Act made cattle a basic commodity, which gave the government authority over the distribution and processing of the cattle for public relief purposes. The act allocated $50 million to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation for the purchase of dairy and beef products and to the elimination of diseased beef and dairy cattle. The Act was the first of its kind following the Agricultural Adjustment Act to give the FSRC legitimate congressional recognition and some more political bargaining power. Additionally, the act united the meat and dairy industry, who had previously been blaming each other for beef and dairy surpluses in the year leading up to the act.

Following the passage of the act, the secretary of agriculture purchased approximately 8.3 million head of cattle at a cost of $111,546,104 for use by the FSRC. 1.5 million of these animals were deemed unfit for human consumption and were buried while the rest were sent to the FSRC for immediate processing. After distribution to commercial packing houses, to SERAs (State Emergency Relief Association) for processing in work relief projects, to temporary pasturage until facilities became available, or for use as dairy or breeder cows, the FSRC had processed 657,396,312 pounds of fresh and canned beef. This represented 3.5% of the average annual consumption of pork and beef.

In more than one webinar and conference call I have been on in recent weeks, they referenced the fact that most of the protein demand from restaurants is all but gone. Steaks, bacon, ground beef and other products are sitting in cold storage, waiting to be sent to these food service agencies, institutions and schools. More than one speaker has made the comment these products could very easily go to food banks, to people who need them.

Why can't these market hogs and beef cattle ready to slaughter go on to feed the people who are needing food? Bureaucratic red tape? Sick employees? Employees too scared to come to work because there are too many positive cases in the plant they work at? There has to be a better solution out there instead of wasting these animals. Sounds like the USDA is working on something for this already. We’ll see how it comes to fruition.

Things are so different than they were just a month ago, even 2 months ago. Never in my life have I worried so much about going to the grocery store. One, because I don't want to get sick or infect my family; and two, because I'm afraid they wont have what I want. Now that's a first world problem right there, you may be thinking, but dive a little deeper and some shoppers are having trouble finding the necessities in their stores. Luckily people around here still have money to buy food and there’s food on the shelves.

Deep down, I'm really worried. I worry if we're doing the right thing. I worry if this is going to turn into the Great Depression. I worry if life will be so different that we won't even recognize it. I'm not sure how we're going to get through it. I felt a lot like this in 2017. We managed to get through then, and I'm hopeful we can again.

In the midst of my worry, the other day I read something about taking one task at a time instead of worrying about getting it all done. I think that's what I'll do. One thing at a time.

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