Across the nation and around the world, the number of coronavirus cases is on the rise. This alarming trend has raised concerns that the economic lockdown from the spring could return. Leaders in Frankfort can and should be creative in using available resources and developing guidelines to prevent further damage to Kentucky’s economy this winter while also encouraging Kentuckians to follow CDC guidelines.
When the pandemic first began, I worked in Frankfort to make sure that agriculture remained open for business. As the providers of our food and fiber, our hard-working farmers needed to continue working to make sure Kentucky, the nation, and the world didn’t go hungry. However, we did see our food supply tested in ways we thought previously unimaginable. The spread of the virus and the government-forced shutdown of our economy resulted in a slowdown of meat processing which led to shortages of product, increases in the price of meat for consumers, and decreases in farm income. We can’t let that happen again.
That’s why last week I asked Governor Beshear to allocate $2 million of Leader McConnell’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to expand meat processing in Kentucky. In May, the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board set aside $1.5 million of tobacco settlement funds to incentivize the expansion of our small meat processors. At this time, we believe two-thirds of those funds are committed. Since Kentucky is the largest beef cattle state east of the Mississippi River, putting $2 million of the $1.7 billion provided by the CARES Act towards this purpose would benefit us for years to come.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that many farmers have built business models based on supplying Kentucky Proud meats, dairy, fruits, and vegetables to our restaurants. Others supply grapes for wine, corn for bourbon, and hops for beer. With winter coming, it is important we carefully re-evaluate the restrictions on businesses while keeping all Kentuckians safe. Are curfews really effective in limiting the spread? Does prohibiting a single individual from eating a meal at a restaurant bar keep people safe? What fees should we consider freezing or reducing for restaurants and bars because they haven’t operated like they would in a normal year? We need to put public health first, but we also should consider the startling fact that 37% of restaurant operators say it is unlikely their business will be around in 6 months without additional support.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, either. We can learn from other states and how they’ve supported farmers and businesses. At least 12 states have set aside CARES Act funds to help farmers and/or increase meat processing capacity. Tennessee set aside $50 million for its agriculture and forestry industries alone, Ohio set aside $37.5 million to assist restaurants and bars, and Hawaii is giving out $500 restaurant gift cards to unemployed workers, ensuring businesses are strong, workers get paid, and the unemployed get a meal. To date, Kentucky hasn’t done anything like this to support our farmers and businesses.
These commonsense ideas could help restore the robust economy all Kentuckians were enjoying before the pandemic and put us onto a path for economic growth in the future. In the meantime, let’s do our part to support our farmers, restaurants, and small businesses when we can — even if we have to do so six feet apart.
Dr. Ryan Quarles serves as Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner.