'It will kill our small towns': COVID-19 pandemic amounts to crisis for rural Midwest

'It will kill our small towns': COVID-19 pandemic amounts to crisis for rural Midwest

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DAVENPORT — “Spring is normally a very optimistic time,” Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, noted Thursday morning. “But this is no ordinary spring, as we all know.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing unprecedented pressure on all sectors of the economy, agriculture no exception. Rural communities and farmers were hurting long before the coronavirus crisis, buffeted by trade wars, a dearth of housing stock and poor internet access, by severe weather and flooding and by rural health care closures.

“Our economies were in a tough spot before COVID-19,” said Patty Judge, co-founder of Focus on Rural America and former Iowa lieutenant governor and secretary of agriculture, on a press call about issues facing rural economies.

Rural areas aren’t immune from the virus. Rural towns face high stakes to contain the pandemic. Although small towns tend to be less densely populated than urban areas, they also tend to be older, sicker and farther from health care.

In Louisa County, in rural southeast Iowa, 166 positive cases have been identified mainly through an outbreak at a Tyson plant in Columbus Junction. The county’s per capita caseload is one of the highest in the country, outpacing the state of New York.

The three counties with the state’s highest per capita caseload are Louisa, Washington and Muscatine counties, in southeastern Iowa.

“They do not have a hospital or a single resident physician,” Judge added. “Our rural hospitals and clinics are accustomed to sending emergency patients elsewhere.

Judge said 166 rural hospitals nationwide have closed since 2005 and remaining providers often face physician shortages.

One of the hardest-hit agriculture subsectors is biofuels. A new report from Iowa State University found the COVID-19 crisis will cost Iowa agriculture at least $6.3 billion this year, with about 40% of losses in ethanol alone.

Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy, said 2019 was one of the toughest years for ethanol producers due to “historic floods and hostile regulators,” particularly the “dramatic influx of oil refinery exemptions coming out of this EPA.”

According to Skor, fuel demand is down 46% and ethanol production down 43%.

“Half of the industry is offline right now,” she said.

Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture, suggested the federal government deploy its purchasing power to bolster the ethanol industry. “First and foremost, the hope would be we’d see an increased purchasing role from the federal government,” Vilsack said. “There are a tremendous number of vehicles that are utilized in the government service to the people even in this virus circumstance. There’s no reason why any of those vehicles can’t be and shouldn’t be using biofuels.”

The COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately affecting Iowa’s communities of color, particularly black and Latino populations. Immigrants are a backbone of farm and factory labor and often face acute risk of contracting the virus working in tight conditions in a plant or field. The straits are most dire for undocumented workers who often don’t have health care and aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

“They stand shoulder-to-shoulder for eight-plus hours. It is absolutely a climate that is ripe with opportunity to catch something from the guy on your left or your right,” Judge said. “I don’t think we’ve done enough to protect them.”

For Larew, the COVID-19 crisis shows “the importance of protecting workers.”

“Their safety, their protection is critically important not only to the viability of the farms but just for public health and humanitarian actions here,” he added.

As the economy continues to sag through the pandemic, Congress and executive agencies are debating how to contain the worst of the economic fallout.

“We cannot structure aid packages so that only the big survive while mom-and-pop shops that define our taxpayers and jobs creators across value-added agriculture continue to take the hit,” Judge said. “It is not sustainable, and it will kill our small towns.”

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