Guest Column: Helping rural Minnesota through the pandemic
Guest Column by Amy Klobuchar
The coronavirus pandemic has put a magnifying glass on some of the economic disparities that have long existed for rural Americans, highlighting why we need to make serious investments in these communities. And with a new year underway, I plan to dedicate a lot of time and attention to the unique risks facing rural Minnesotans and ensuring that rural areas get the support they need.
One issue that has been brought into sharp focus by this pandemic is the disproportionately low number of health care providers across rural America. We’ve all heard stories of hospitals that lost a single doctor or OB/GYN and were no longer able to deliver babies — forcing families to travel many miles and hours just to give birth safely. To help rural hospitals, I worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass the relief package signed into law in December 2020 that included $2.5 billion for coronavirus testing and $300 million for vaccine distribution in rural communities. And to address challenges for rural hospitals beyond this pandemic, I’ve worked with a bipartisan group of senators to extend the Conrad 30 program, which has brought thousands of foreign doctors to underserved areas to fill the gaps in care and allow them to stay in the communities they serve.
Meanwhile, this pandemic has also posed serious challenges for our farmers by upending where and how we get our food, shifting it away from wholesalers and suppliers and to the grocery store. And this came at a time when our farm economy was already struggling with of the price of commodities, export tariffs, market fluctuations, weather events and the undermining of the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Given this and the other unique needs of our rural communities, I worked with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to make sure that the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress at the end of last year included provisions to help our farmers, ranchers, and food processors.
The relief package specifically includes $3 billion for livestock payments to help with losses from processing capacity disruptions. I know many began 2020 with optimism about prices climbing due to increasing domestic and foreign demand, but were hit hard when restaurant and processing plant closures created significant backlogs. These backlogs meant many farmers had market-ready animals with nowhere to go. This provision will begin to help make them whole.
But we need to do more than just help livestock and poultry processors weather the immediate storm — we must help them build resilience in the future.
My bipartisan bill with Senator Moran from Kansas — the Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants (RAMP-UP) Act — was signed into law at the end of last year. And this legislation will provide grant funding to small meat and poultry processors to help them make the improvements necessary to meet federal food safety inspection standards.
Livestock producers haven’t been the only agricultural sector impacted by supply chain disruptions. The renewable fuel industry has also been severely impacted by coronavirus-related interruptions that have resulted in significant declines in demand for gasoline — every gallon of which contains at least 10% ethanol.
From March through November of last year, the biofuel industry lost $3.8 billion in revenues and production declined by 2 billion gallons, which equates to 700 million bushels of corn. Relief funds for the biofuel industry are needed to preserve rural jobs, commodity prices, the food supply chain and consumer access to a homegrown transportation fuel.
Despite these losses, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has failed to provide relief to the biofuels industry, often citing a lack of authority to do so. That’s why together with Senator Grassley from Iowa, I introduced the Renewable Fuel Feedstock Reimbursement Act to authorize USDA to provide relief for processing plants from the most recent funding package. And while we were successful in getting this bill signed into law and giving USDA this authority, we will need to ensure that they follow through in the coming weeks and months.
These provisions were a step in the right direction and significant down payment, but I know we must do more to continue supporting our rural communities. America’s economic well-being is tied to our rural communities in Minnesota and across the nation. We all have to listen to their needs and ensure their priorities are met so that they are not left behind.
That means moving forward early this year to provide for additional relief for Minnesotans, helping our schools, health care systems and small businesses, and continuing to strengthen our food supply.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, is a U.S. senator.