Pandemic aid is too constricted and too slow, ag groups and lawmakers tell USDA

The USDA should immediately release the $1.4 billion of coronavirus payments it’s holding in reserve for farmers and change the rules — particularly on eligibility, payment limits and the deadline for applications — that are keeping aid from producers, said 28 farm and agribusiness groups.

Separately, the Democratic members of a House Agriculture subcommittee said the coronavirus program “has failed to provide relief to the specialty crop sector.”

The critiques of the coronavirus program came as doubt was rising over agreement on new coronavirus legislation. The executive orders issued by President Trump over the weekend did not touch on additional aid to agriculture or public nutrition programs such as SNAP.

Some $16 billion was earmarked for farmers and ranchers by the Trump administration last spring in its one-time-only Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Only $6.8 billion was disbursed as of Aug. 3 and signup is scheduled to close on Aug. 28. Payments began in early June and lately have slowed to a trickle. The USDA updates its payment figures each Monday at midday.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, farm and agribusiness said the USDA “should announce second tranche payments.” Because it expected a flood of applications, the USDA has prorated payments to producers at 80 percent to ensure everybody gets something. The 20 percent that was withheld equaled $1.36 billion as of last Monday. If it was released, payments would rise to $8.16 billion, or half of the CFAP fund.

“The fact that there is still money available should not lead anyone to believe that the needs of America’s farmers have all been met,” said president Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “We need to increase awareness and that means USDA turning it up a notch, along with ag groups.”

Without suggesting a new date, farm and agribusiness groups said the deadline for applications should be extended. Coronavirus restrictions on federal offices may have limited producers’ chances to learn about CFAP or get help in applying, they said. The USDA should re-examine the timeframe it uses to calculate revenue losses and the portion of grain, dairy and livestock sales that are eligible, said the letter. The groups also asked for a more lenient application of the $250,000 payment limit per person or entity.

“As flexible an approach as possible should also be taken to the program, and any future support efforts, to ensure that producers can receive the full benefits to which they are entitled,” said the groups, which included the largest organizations speaking for cattle, dairy, cotton, and fruit and vegetable growers, as well as trade groups for farm equipment makers, seed companies, the produce industry and agricultural biotechnology.

Only $270 million of coronavirus aid — 4 percent of CFAP payments — has gone to specialty crop growers, said the letter to Perdue from Democrats serving on the House Agriculture subcommittee on horticulture. “USDA must do more to assist the specialty crop sector, particularly those farmers who are young, socially disadvantaged or sell into local markets.” The letter called for an “immediate and targeted outreach to specialty crop stakeholders.”

The AFBF said payments to producers of hogs, sorghum, canola, sunflowers and specialty crops lagged far behind the levels forecast by USDA when it constructed CFAP. For example, fruits and vegetables have received one-eighth of the expected amount.

To read the letter from farm and agribusiness groups, click here.

To read the letter from lawmakers, click here.