As of Friday, the United States government has been shut down for a full week.
The reasons why are not really our focus here; there are plenty of explainers for that. But given the government’s prominence and importance in the American food production and regulation systems, any shutdown is a huge deal to us. So what’s going on, exactly?
A government shutdown is a complex thing, with certain programs losing funding, others able to spend out for a certain amount of time before their money runs out, and others declared essential and continuing basically as before. The USDA issued a press release on December 28th laying out some of the effects of a continuing shutdown.
On the list of programs that will continue include: meat, poultry, and egg inspections; the Market News service, which gives commodity information to producers; import and export inspections, mostly to prevent pests; and, well, grain and commodity inspection, because that stuff is actually paid for by the producers and not the government.
There are a bunch of programs that will continue for the time being, but not indefinitely. Those include, most notably, SNAP, which will continue only through the month of January without a resolution. Child nutrition services, including school lunches, will continue “into February,” but the USDA has not provided more information than that. Some local offices not specifically listed by the USDA have reported that they’ll be open as long as they can, but that’s not very long, without any money coming through. The Cullman Times, based in Alabama, says that departments set up to help farmers with soil erosion and other healthy farm practices may not make it through the week, just for example.
And then there are the many, many programs that have totally closed their doors. New grants and loans for everything from expanded facilities to research and education will not be examined. USA Today has a story about some of the many Americans who were relying on a USDA loan for a new house. Remember that the department of Rural Development falls under the USDA’s umbrella, and it’s a major lender for low- and middle-income families to buy a home. That’s all stopped now; people are literally living out of boxes, hoping that their contract doesn’t fall through while the government gets it together.
The USDA’s crop reports, which literally decide the movements of massive industries, are indefinitely delayed. The subsidies that should have been issued to help farmers deal with the tariff war are in a total state of uncertainty; it’s unclear whether there’s anyone actually working at the offices to get that money out to farmers hurt by international trade policies. And now, in mid-winter, is a time when farmers are just beginning to start buying new seed, fertilizer, and pesticides for the upcoming growing season—except they have no money to do so.
The brand-new hemp industry, newly legal nationwide thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, has stopped as suddenly as it started. It’s a bit early for prospective hemp farmers to start planting, but the new crop requires background checks and other legislative hoops to jump through—and there’s nobody working at the offices to help farmers through them.
Needless to say, the longer this shutdown continues, the worse things will get for the food and agriculture industries.