Economic impact of coronavirus outweighs federal help, says U.S. farm group

Congress allotted $23.5 billion for agriculture in the coronavirus relief package, but “that amount of money will not sustain” the farm sector, said the president of the largest U.S. farm group. The sector will need “a whole lot more [money] than was in the CARES Act,” said Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

AFBF officials pointed to large declines in milk, cattle, hog, corn, soybean and cotton prices during March as evidence of the losses farmers and ranchers are suffering. The produce industry was walloped as well, with the shutdown of restaurants, schools and the food service industry.

Farm groups are competing in public for a share of the coronavirus money. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has almost unlimited authority to apportion it. Lawmakers said $9.5 billion was for agricultural producers hit by the coronavirus, including fruit and vegetable growers; farmers who supply local food systems; and livestock producers, including dairy farmers. An additional $14 billion was given, with no direction on spending, to a USDA agency that has expansive powers to support farm income and commodity prices.

“The impact is widespread throughout the country and throughout commodities,” said AFBF economist Veronica Nigh. The AFBF says cattle prices fell as much as 25 percent, dairy was down more than 25 percent, hog and cotton futures fell 31 percent, corn futures 14 percent, and soybean futures 8 percent. “These are dramatic declines.”

AFBF officials said they were compiling information about the impact on agriculture with an eye to recommending action by USDA within days. “This is an extremely fluid situation,” said Paul Schlegel, vice president for public affairs.

Duvall said the USDA probably would begin disbursements soon, although Perdue, a fellow Georgian, “said he could not give me a timeline” during a recent phone call.

“The trouble we’re having is the food service industry has basically shut down,” said Jim Alderman, who operates a 1,200-acre vegetable farm in Palm Beach County, Florida. “There is no market for this produce.” Cattle producer Peter Bakken said the coronavirus “is a management nightmare” with the potential for a million-dollar loss. Alderman and Bakken took part in the AFBF teleconference.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Saturday that Congress should write another relief bill that would “go further in assisting small businesses, including farmers, extending and strengthening unemployment benefits and giving families additional direct payments. We must also provide the desperately needed resources for our state and local governments, hospitals, community health centers, health systems and health workers, first responders and other providers on the front lines of this crisis.”

The leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee wrote to the Small Business Administration to argue that farmers and ranchers should be eligible for “economic injury” loans created by the coronavirus relief law. The agency has ruled they are not eligible. “Notably, as the new definition of eligible entities does not explicitly exclude farms, Congress intended farms to qualify provided they fit within one of the specific criteria for eligibility,” said Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the committee.