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  • Agricultural Impacts Q&A with Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring

    Agricultural Impacts Q&A with Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring

    Agriculture is one of North Dakota's top industries, driving the economy of the state since its inception. On a national level, various subsects of agriculture have created concern for consumers and policymakers alike, specifically looking at value-ad ag production manufacturing and meat processors. COVID-19 impacts reaching into this industry further demonstrates the ripple effects that are at play with the pandemic.

    GNDC visited with Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring to gain more insight into the industry and determine how North Dakota will further be impacted.

    GNDC: From the perspective of the Office of the Ag Commissioner, what are the biggest challenges you see as a result of COVID-19 facing the agriculture industry? 
    (Laughs) I don’t know if I am going to do a good job conveying this. I’m going to try and be as concise as possible.

    • Labor issues, about 1,800 H2A workers that come into the state. That is probably one of those issues that have been front and center. Also developing guidance for farmers and producers to avoid interruptions.
    • Mental health issues with our Ag community. This is the seventh year in a row we’ve had declining prices. We are not in line with the cost of production. We are just working our way out of a trade war and then we get hit with Covid-19.
    • Transportation issues: Many [ag-related] businesses cannot handle millions of dollars in inventory, they are connected to other warehouses, dealerships, stores, retail outlets. If there was a part(repair item) that was needed, it could come the next day. Because of COVID-19, our Ag producers may wait up to eight days because there seems to be prioritization within the system. It’s forgotten that ancillary services that support agriculture production help food and beverage production. 
    We are essential and critical. And if you thought people acting crazy when they were short on toilet paper, wait until they are short on meat and other products on the shelf. They will not comply nicely. We have already started to see areas where there are shortages of protein. My colleagues have said that it is tense out there. We cannot have that situation.    

    Recently your office put out operational guidance to manufactures. Anything you would like to relay to our food manufacturers and processors in the state?
    It goes back to the fact that there has been a lot of consternation with employers, agribusiness, and processors about what happens in any given scenario: “Is the public health district going to shut me down, is the state going to shut me down,” no you are critical and essential. We have developed some guidance. We are working with manufacturers and producers to take a common-sense approach to make sure we are mitigating risk to the greatest degree.  

    Recently the President invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat processors running. Where can manufacturers get the PPE and other services they need to fulfill the order from the president? 
    This is something that I have not had to handle directly and is anecdotal that I am hearing from other states.  It is the responsibility of the company to do that. There are states that are trying to work on how can we assist or help with some federal grant dollars. Every state is managing and handling it differently. It should be a priority, it should be first prioritized for the food and beverage industry.

    Meat processors have been in the news a lot lately.  Can you give a national perspective on the meat supply in the U.S.? 
    Now, this is a complex issue. You have had some plant closures because people have tested positive for COVID-19, not that they were ill they just tested positive. Some have been good about managing and mitigating their way through this. Some are dealing with unions where they were exploiting the situation and making some rather large demands. Part of it is a workforce issue, part of it is a marketing of inventory, inventory issues, but quite frankly they have done a poor job of managing through this because they still wanted to operate and do things their way without being flexible and fluid in this system and getting the product to the consumer.
    In the state, we have done one other thing. Wyoming and us, we’ve dug into the federal meat inspection law because we have our own meat inspection program. But we have to follow the guidelines established by the feds. We did find a way in which we can offer some more flexibility back into the system for custom exempt facilities. Generally, custom exempt facilities cannot sell meat unless it comes from a USDA or state meat inspected facility. Then you can buy boxed beef, you can cut it up, you can sell it however you need to. But we found a way you can have up to eight people can buy a beef or buy a hog together and pay for the process and get the meat. That offers flexibility back into the situation we’ve never had before.              

    Right now farmers are getting into the field, some are calving, some are working their breeding programs – what advice and guidance do you have regarding social distancing and COVID-19 management in their operations? 
    Inherently, ag producers are isolated already. There are people out here that are respecting the guidance, CDC rules, and the Governor’s orders. However, social distancing can’t exist in the real world. There are jobs you have to do together. This isn’t in defiance this is in reality. The public is slowly saying "yea, okay, whatever," but there are still people out there saying they just don’t get it. I’ve got beekeepers, that came back from California doing pollination services. They are out here working together, driving around in a pick-up together, and I’ve got people going nuts. They have worked and lived together like a family. Nothing is going to change. They have a job to do. Right now, they are putting queen bees in each one of their hives. They’re managing their hives. If you want food, you need pollination to take place. Largely about 70% of the fruits and vegetables you eat, need pollination to happen.

    Are cattle able to contract coronavirus? Is there a vaccine for cattle for the coronavirus? What would happen if herds become infected? 
    Coronavirus exists everywhere it has always been around. There’s bovine, equine, feline, they all have coronavirus but its species-specific. If you put horses, cows together, they cannot share the same coronavirus. We actually vaccinate for those things in animals. But it has a little different effect and is a little different in general, so not a problem.