Cal Dalton breathed a sigh of relief after hearing the longest partial government shutdown in United States history ended last week, but the family farmer said he’s still working through the consequences.
Other farmers and agriculture experts also are glad the shutdown is over, and many in the industry and at various related agencies are acting quickly to mitigate possible further consequences.
“We lost 35 days of decision-making,” Dalton said.
Dalton’s family farms and owns cattle ranches in Marquette and Columbia counties, and said his operation was particularly hard-hit by the shutdown.
While U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors were on furlough for 35 days and reports weren’t being written, the industry became a sort of wild west for buyers. Dalton said his buyers had purchased cattle hides for about $150 each, but those prices dropped drastically to between $6 and $8 during the shutdown.
“You’ve got a valuable commodity that you’re basically just throwing away,” Dalton said.
He said hide values have not yet returned to normal levels, and he isn’t sure when the issue will be resolved.
Two reports compiled by the federal Agriculture Marketing Service indicated that cow hides nationally were valued on average between $9.50 and $28.50 on Dec. 21, 2018. As of Tuesday, those average values had increased to between roughly $10 and $38.
Veronica Alvarado, a market inspector, was cited as the source in both reports.
Alvarado told the Daily Register those average values are compiled based on numbers voluntarily reported by companies nationwide and are not all-encompassing and may not reflect individual markets in certain states.
Due to the closure of federal agencies, Dalton said he was unable to apply for a crop loan with the Farm Service Agency to purchase this year’s supply of corn and soybean materials.
He said this slows down the production process and creates anxiety about whether the farm could even turn a profit if it can’t get a loan before planting season. Most years, Dalton buys his seed and fertilizer by early January. This year, he’s been especially eager to get started for the season.
He said farmers were uncertain which plants to buy for 2019, as market reports and commodity projections were unavailable.
George Koepp, the agriculture agent for Columbia County’s UW-Extension, said having federal farming agencies on furlough put farmers in a tough position to sign up for crop loans or tariff refunds.
“They need that cash now,” Koepp said.
The federal government has pledged to reimburse farmers for tariffs that affected their profits on crops grown in 2018. The refunds largely were postponed due to the shutdown.
The original date for refund paperwork to be filed was Jan. 15. That’s been extended until Feb. 14, a spokeswoman at the Farm Service Agency office in Portage said.
Koepp said government subsidies to help fund farming entail a penny per bushel of corn and $1.65 per bushel of soybeans.
Dalton grew 1,100 acres of corn in 2018. He said he’s eligible for anywhere between $750 and $1,500 in tariff refunds, depending on what percentage of the promised refunds the federal government is able to pay out immediately.
“That’s just a drop in the bucket,” Dalton said. “That’s not even a payment on a bill we’ve got.”
Also affected by the shutdown, grain and dairy products being stored at some farms cannot yet leave their ports without federal inspectors’ approval, Dalton said.
Relationships with overseas buyers also have taken a hit as trust needs to be re-established, he said.
Since offices such as the Farm Service Agency fully reopened Monday, they’ve faced a backlog in processing payments and loan requests, Koepp said.
“It just holds everything up,” Koepp said. “They’re going to be working fast and furious.”
Justin Fritscher, communications coordinator for the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center in Washington, D.C., said the Department of Agriculture reopened all offices and was fully staffed Monday.
The Farm Service Agency called some staff members back to work Jan. 17 to process tax documents, and the agency fully reopened without pay Jan. 24 to work on select programs. With the shutdown over, federal workers will receive back pay for the time they worked.
The federal agency offers crop loans and other benefits to farmers nationwide. With the agency on furlough for more than a month, some farmers were unable to get loan requests processed until after the shutdown ended.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service did not close at any point during the shutdown because it had leftover funds from 2018 that weren’t used and helped keep the agency running while other offices were furloughed.
“We kind of got a jump-start on serving farmers, even during the shutdown,” Fritscher said.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers expertise to farmers who want to make improvements to their land.
The Farm Service Agency had a large backlog of loan requests and tax documents to sort through, Fritscher said. But he is confident the agency will catch up soon.
Ralph Levzow is waiting on federal reports to be filed, but he’s otherwise not worried after the shutdown.
Levzow said his multi-generational family dairy farm near Rio was not significantly impacted by the government shutdown because he accepts most of his business loans through Compeer Financial instead of federal programs.
Compeer Financial is a member-owned cooperative that offers loans and agriculture credit to thousands of farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.
Dalton is glad to see the government reopened, but he remains uneasy about whether it could shut down again after three weeks of discussions in Washington about funding a border wall, and about the state of local farming in general.
The shutdown presented challenges, but Dalton said it came on top of needed tariff relief, falling profits, rising production costs and harsh 2018 weather. Dalton has seen his profits decrease as production costs rise, while neighboring family farms are sold off.
“The shutdown is just another one of those one or two hits that farmers can’t take right now,” he said.