Stung by coronavirus, producers ask government to buy their goods

The government should step up its food purchases as a way to mitigate the potential loss of billions of dollars in sales due to the coronavirus pandemic, said dairy farmers and two dozen lawmakers representing fruit and vegetable growers. And a small-farm advocacy group estimated a three-month cost of $1.3 billion to the economy from throttling of the local and regional food system as restaurants, farmers markets and schools shut down.

The purchases could flow through existing programs and the initial rounds of coronavirus relief legislation rather than the $2 trillion “phase three” bill that occupied congressional attention this week.

“Over the last five weeks, the [USDA] estimate of 2020 milk prices reflect a drop of about $2.85 billion at the farm level,” wrote chief executive Jim Mulhern of the National Milk Producers Federation in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Tuesday. “Further drops are possible as the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak spreads.”

In a letter organized by California Rep. Jimmy Panetta, lawmakers from across the nation asked Perdue, “As you work to continue mitigating the impacts of this emergency on our nation’s agriculture industry, we ask that you include targeted relief for the specialty crop industry.”

In both instances, the letters said the solution should include larger USDA purchases. Among three steps, the NMPF recommended “additional dairy product purchases, which will help Americans in need during what may be a period of very high demand at food banks.” The lawmakers urged a USDA commitment “to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for federal nutrition programs.”

The dairy group also called for compensation to producers if they have to pour milk down the drain if they cannot get the milk to market and for USDA to re-open enrollment in the Dairy Margin Coverage subsidy.

For their part, the lawmakers called for “direct support to specialty crop producers whose customers are now unable to fulfill their previous purchase commitments due to the current crisis” and flexibility in use of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, which was created to assure growers receive payment. The trade group United Fresh Produce Association, whose members range from growers to processors and retailers, also sought federal action that included $1 billion in additional purchases of fresh produce “to help meet the needs of schools and all emergency feeding sites that are experiencing increased demand.”

“This outbreak has had a seismic impact throughout the produce supply chain and is causing extreme uncertainty in the industry,” said United Fresh in a letter to Perdue. “For example, distributors serving schools and restaurants have seen this sector dry up almost overnight.”

The National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition estimated sales will fall by nearly $690 million across key local and regional markets from March-May, with a total loss to the economy of $1.3 billion. The local and regional agriculture system includes farmers markets, farm-to-school, food hubs and restaurants. The coalition said local food and farm businesses should be included in emergency support of small businesses.

“Social distancing measures such as the closure of universities, schools, restaurants, and local food markets, e.g., farmers markets (and) farm stands, will result in significant shifts in where food is sold or acquired, and subsequently, markets for farms and ranches,” said NSAC. It cited an estimate of $11.8 billion in local food sales in 2017 with 8 percent of U.S. farms and ranches involved.