CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHMMER
Labor shortages. Supply-chain problems. Food security. The decline of dairymen. Barriers to new farmers. Red tape. Cattle prices. The need for more young people to choose agriculture as a way of life.
Monday morning in Culpeper, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger heard it all, joined by Agriculture Department Undersecretary Jenny L. Moffitt and 21 farm-industry leaders from across Virginia.
Meeting at the county’s Carver Center near Cedar Mountain, the 7th District congresswoman and Moffitt hosted a supply-chain roundtable with Culpeper crop and livestock producers plus representatives from Virginia farm groups, agribusinesses and research institutions.
For more than an hour, they heard people’s concerns, asked them questions about issues and fielded queries from the cattlemen, farmers and ag officials.
“What are the things you think we need to know?” Spanberger asked them. “What are the challenges that could be met better?”
Both Spanberger and Moffitt sketched how nationwide Regional Food Business Centers, which USDA announced in March 2022, will be implemented. In June, a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives passed Spanberger’s Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act, which includes her legislation to make those new centers permanent.
Moffitt, a California walnut farmer who is the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, struck an upbeat tone.
“Everyone here is facing lots of challenges,” she said. “One of the great things about America is we get challenges, take the lessons learned and turn them into great opportunities.”
Moffitt last visited the region in December, venturing to Gordonsville with Spanberger to meet livestock producers and discuss private and government investments in meat processing and food-chain infrastructure.
A Democrat, Spanberger serves on the House Agriculture Committee, chairing its Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee.
Brandon Reeves, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, thanked Spanberger on Monday for her bill assigning special investigators in the USDA to probe price fixing in the meat processing industry.
“That’s a really good step in the right direction when four packers have 95 percent of the U.S. market,” Reeves said. Similar legislation just passed the Senate Agriculture Committee, he noted.
Several representatives raised labor shortages as a major issue for farmers, dairy and cattle producers, and sketched different causes of the problem.
Some said changing the nation’s H2A temporary worker program to allow for year-round employment of immigrants would greatly aid agriculture, from meat processing to greenhouse growers.
Mark Ramsey of the Culpeper Farmers’ Cooperative predicted that labor shortages will force “a massive consolidation” of Virginia farm co-ops, which he said has already begun in Central Virginia.
Ramsey and others said the U.S. shortage of truck drivers and higher fuel prices have made supplying farmers and getting their products to market more difficult and more expensive.
Ronnie Gill of Colonial Farm Credit said that with financial markets more volatile than ever, interest rates are way up and having a big impact on farmers and their plans for expansion.
“We’re seeing 40-year highs on rates, Gill said. “This generation hasn’t seen that before.”
As the nation navigates a bumpy economy and overstressed supply chains, Spanberger’s American Food Supply Chain Resiliency Act aims to help small and midsized farms and producers by creating Regional Resource Centers that will offer locally tailored coordination, technical assistance and grants to agribusinesses, her office said.
The House passed that measure in June as part of the two-term lawmaker’s food and fuel cost bill, which focuses on lowering costs in groceries, cutting gas prices, strengthening supply chains, and making smaller livestock producers more competitive.
Relieving shortages of the computer microchips that power everything from smartphones to refrigerators are one of the major reasons that the Chips Act, which Congress just passed and President Biden is due to sign Tuesday, really matters, Spanberger said in an interview.
“We are teetering on that precipice of absolute disaster, of not being able to plan long term for what’s needed,” she said. “There are chips in your dishwasher. There are chips in your car.
“The Virginia Loggers’ Association came to me advocating for the chips bill because logging equipment is really high tech and there’s a backlog supply-chain challenge with it,” Spanberger said. “… With this bill, we are avoiding greater supply-chain issues.”
The recent shortage of baby formula was similarly critical, she said. Legislation that Spanberger wrote requires formula producers to ring alarm bells with the Agriculture Department if they’re running short of ingredients that would cause a massive shortage.
Supply-chain woes may not rank first among voters’ concerns, but they filter into them, the congresswoman said.
“But I think voters are saying ‘I’m worried about the uneasiness of the cost of things in the grocery store,’” she said. “As a legislator, how do I address that? Supply chain. … The cost of gas—that’s a supply-chain issue. (But) when there’s a war in Ukraine, there are other factors in that.”
From The Carver Center, Spanberger drove to cattleman Roy Whitlock’s Cedar Mountain farm, where the Vietnam War veteran gave her a tour in his pickup truck.
In the portions of their conversation that reporters could hear, they discussed cattle prices, family farming, a prize bull, Veterans Administration health care and the effects of Agent Orange.
From Whitlock’s place, Spanberger drove east Monday afternoon to Stafford County to meet with trucking-industry representatives and tour a Hispanic supermarket in Woodbridge.