Mississippi poultry farmers who suffered losses when restaurants shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic will receive $23 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, said the federal aid is a first. Because most chicken farmers are contract growers for poultry processing plants, they’re not eligible for federal crop insurance and had not previously received any federal assistance during the pandemic despite suffering losses.

“Almost in one day it seemed, all the restaurants closed,” Leggett said. “That’s about half of the chicken sold. Of the chicken that’s not exported, about half goes to restaurants and the other half to groceries … It was a shock back in 2020, and some growers did really suffer.”

USDA announced that $270 million in pandemic aid would be given to poultry and livestock contract producers nationwide. A total of $22.7 million will be distributed to 557 Mississippi chicken growers and about $400,000 to state egg contract producers who suffered pandemic losses.

Leggett said there are about 1,600 poultry producers in Mississippi. Poultry (including eggs) has been the states largest agricultural crop for nearly three decades, with annual farm production of about $3 billion a year for the last decade.

Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Chris Coons of Delaware led a successful bipartisan effort urging USDA to set aside the assistance for chicken farmers in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“Chicken farmers are a vitally important part of Mississippi agriculture,” Wicker said in a statement. “I appreciate the USDA awarding these funds and working with farmers to ensure they have the resources needed following challenges associated with COVID-19.”

Leggett said the chicken market has rebounded from the early pandemic downturn.

“Demand is up,” Leggett said. “I know this is true at my house — as the price of beef goes up, people fall back to chicken. That has helped with demand.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.