As Senate passes coronavirus relief package, farm groups call for support in next round

The Senate voted on Wednesday to pass an emergency aid package that will, among other provisions, expand funding for nutrition programs as the nation confronts the economic toll of the spreading coronavirus. As the bill heads to President Trump for a likely signature, farm and food groups are urging Congress to include the agriculture sector in forthcoming relief efforts.

Senators voted 90-8 in favor of the “phase two” stimulus measure, which the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates will cost more than $100 billion. Officials and lawmakers are already discussing a third relief measure that could total $1 trillion.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes an additional $1.25 billion for nutrition programs, including $500 million for WIC. It also suspends controversial work and job training requirements that dictate who is able to access benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Now groups that represent farmers and farmers’ markets are asking to be included in the next anticipated federal relief package, which is expected to focus on small businesses.

Groups that work with farmers who sell directly to consumers, either through farmers’ markets or community-supported agriculture, are particularly concerned. Those farmers face a potentially devastating loss of income if public markets are forced to close as cities restrict public gatherings to limit the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“Farmers’ markets deserve to be included in the federal aid package,” said Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition in a press release. “Unfortunately, neither of the first two packages are guaranteed to provide aid to American farmers who sell directly to the public, nor to the community-based organizations who operate farmers’ markets. Farmers are America’s original small businesspeople, and farmers’ markets are an essential food access point for communities seeking fresh, healthy food — in particular for low-income families who are able to access the freshest fruits and vegetables through markets’ SNAP EBT and WIC programs.”

Advocates say young and beginning farmers face particular risk from the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, as they typically have smaller cash reserves than more established farmers. A majority of them sell directly to customers through outlets like farmers’ markets and school cafeterias, said Sanaz Arjomand, policy director for the National Young Farmers Coalition.

“We need Congress to add funding and flexibility to programs that support direct-to-consumer outlets so that young farmers and ranchers can keep their small businesses going and so that local communities can continue to have access to the food that they depend on,” Arjomand said.

The Farmers Market Coalition suggested several ways that Congress and the Trump administration could help local and regional farmers, including by removing matching fund requirements and introducing more deadline flexibility for several federal local food programs. A brief co-authored this week by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic also suggested using federal authority to buy farm goods to supply emergency food programs.

But not all farm groups know exactly what they’d like to see from Congress. On a call with reporters Wednesday, officials at the American Farm Bureau Federation said it would take time to assess the economic impact of the pandemic on agriculture and figure out what federal relief would help.

“I would say at this point, we do not have a specific number to ask them for,” said Farm Bureau executive vice president Dale Moore, when asked what stimulus the organization might request from Congress. “It is almost impossible to put our finger on and say, well, we need X amount of dollars to provide assistance.”

The Farm Bureau emphasized that its focus right now is on finding a solution to labor issues presented by the State Department’s decision to suspend visa processing in Mexico, where the majority of seasonal farmworkers are from. FERN broke news of the visa issue on Tuesday.