As Congress earmarks aid for ag, farm groups say more may be needed

Farmers and ranchers would see $23.5 billion in aid under the coronavirus bill agreed on by the Senate and the Trump administration on Wednesday. The two largest U.S. farm groups welcomed the aid but said more may be needed to survive the looming economic slowdown.

The funding would include $9.5 billion to support producers affected by the coronavirus pandemic and $14 billion to replenish funds at the Commodity Credit Corp., the obscure agency known as the “USDA’s bank.” The CCC, which can spend $30 billion before asking Congress for more, has sweeping power to support farm income and commodity prices.

The White House used the Depression-era agency to send $26 billion in trade war payments over two years to producers, inspiring suggestions that the CCC would be the conduit for coronavirus aid and possibly another round of Trump tariff payments.

Congressional leaders said they hoped to pass the $2 trillion relief bill this week. It is the third in a series of ever-larger bills to combat the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

Farm leaders said the pandemic is disrupting both domestic and export markets for U.S.-grown products. The sector already suffered as a Chinese target in the trade war, and commodity prices have been in a rut since the collapse of the commodity boom in 2013.

“If these disruptions continue, many operations won’t be able to last more than a few months,” said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union. “In the coming weeks, we will learn more about the additional needs of our rural healthcare system, farmers, and rural communities, and we urge Congress to be ready to address them.”

“We urge swift passage and will continue working with Congress and the administration to ensure there are sufficient resources to assist farmers, ranchers, rural communities, and those in need in these very trying times,” said president Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group.

In providing $9.5 billion to aid farmers and ranchers affected by the coronavirus, lawmakers specified that recipients of the assistance would include dairy, livestock, and specialty crop growers along with “producers that supply local food systems” such as farmers’ markets, restaurants, and schools.

“Congress has taken an important first step to helping farmers and local and regional food systems with the relief bill,” said Eric Deeble of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a small-farm advocate. “As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and ‘social distancing’ restrictions, we expect that farmers who have lost access to direct markets — like farmers’ markets, schools, and restaurants — stand to lose more than $1 billion in sales this year. As the impact of the pandemic continues, their losses will mount and they will have to make hard choices about what to plant and whether they can stay in business at all.”

More help may be needed, said Deeble, who suggested direct payments to farmers to make up for lost income and emergency USDA purchases of food from food hubs and small processors.

“Farmers’ markets and direct-market farmers and ranchers across the country have been in a state of limbo for weeks,” said Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition. “This package gives them a path forward.”

The National Pork Producers Council said hog farmers “already suffered losses due to Covid-19-related concerns. These new financial setbacks come on the heels of two very difficult years during which pork was at the tip of the trade retaliation spear.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill is available here.

The text of the relief bill is available here.